The pongala festival at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple in Thiruvananthapuram is an event whose popularity has been undiminished by time. This year too tens of thousands of women have, literally, positioned themselves in every nook and corner of the city to offer pongala to the presiding deity of the temple.
Traditionally, the first pongala fire is lit at the temple hearth by the chief priest. This fire is then passed on to the devotees who light their own hearths on which they place earthen pots. This lighting of the fire is accompanied by ringing of bells and bursting of crackers. Soon, a huge swathe of the city gets enveloped in a veil of smoke as endless hearths get lit up and pots boil over.
Legend has it that the first pongala was offered to the mythical ‘Kannagi' who took rest at the Attukal area on her way to Kodungalloor. Revered as the incarnation of the mother goddess, Kannagi was sought to be propitiated by the women of the locality through the offering of sweetened rice cooked in earthen pots. Thus was born the tradition of pongala.
The uniqueness of this festival is that it is open only to women. A specialty of this festival is the barriers of caste, creed, and religion fall away in a grand sweep of devotion. The festival at Attukal has become so intimately identified with women devotees that it is also widely referred to as the ‘Sabarimala of Women.'
An important ritual associated with the pongala offering is the sprinkling of holy water on the sweetened rice to sanctify the same. With each passing year, the number of priests deputed to sprinkle holy water on the hearths has increased exponentially. This year the temple Trust plans to depute 250 priests to fan out in the city. Pongala is also a time when some people pose as priests and sprinkle ‘holy' water on the hearths, all for a tidy fee.
Another important ritual associated with the annual festival at the Attukal temple is the Kuthiyottam. This time, 895 children are scheduled to take part in this ritual. The pongala festival comes to a close with the ritual called ‘kuruthi.'
Then there is a section of devotees who prefer to avoid the heat and dust of the festival and prefer to express their devotion from home.
According to the temple Trust there are also those who offer Pongala at their homes in countries such as the U.K. and Australia even as watch the festival live on television.