Tens of thousands of women offered Pongala at Attukal Bhagavathy Temple here on Monday under the grim shadow of COVID-19 and amid heightened disease surveillance by the government apparatus.
News of the sixth COVID-19 case in Kerala in two days broke from Kochi on Monday morning even as devotees were engaged in last-minute preparations for the annual ritual, described as ‘Women’s Sabarimala’ and the largest assemblage of women.
Braving the scorching summer heat, devotees jammed the premises of the Attukal temple, the epicentre of the festivities, and lined city streets with makeshift brick hearths in a ten-kilometre radius.
Women had arrived from all over the State to make the offering - a sweet pudding of rice, jaggery, grated coconut, ghee and banana prepared in earthen pots - to the presiding deity.
Many devotees were seen sporting masks, ominous reminders of the outbreak which has assumed global proportions.
The State government had stepped up COVID-19 surveillance at airports and issued detailed advisories to the public after five people in Pathanamthitta district tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.
The number rose to six on Monday after a three-year-old in Ernakulam was added to the list.
As the ritual progressed on Monday, the police turned back several foreigners from the festival zone. In view of Sunday’s development, the Health Department had directed people with travel history to COVID-19-affected countries to stay away from the festivities. Hotels were asked to dissuade foreign tourists from visiting crowded areas.
Shortly after the ritual concluded, firefighters rushed to douse a fire which broke out at the Manacaud market.
The fire is believed to have spread to a trash dump from one of the Pongala hearths.
Devotees had been streaming into the State capital over the weekend to partake in the ritual which falls on the ninth day of the Attukal temple festival. Street-side cooking spots were booked days in advance using bricks, ropes and chalk markings.
Chief priest P. Easwaran Namboothiri lit the Pandara Aduppu , the main hearth, at 10.20 a.m. In a short while, the festival zone was engulfed in smoke rising from thousands of hearths across the city.
As part of the COVID-19 precautions and the general arrangements, the Health Department had made elaborate arrangements to tackle emergencies. Healthcare teams and ambulances were deployed across the festival zone.
The Police Department had assigned 3,000 personnel to handle security.
The Pongala ritual concluded with the sanctification of the Pandara Aduppu at 2.15 p.m. The ‘Chooralkuthu’ ritual was held later. It was followed by the ‘Purathezhunellippu’ of the deity. This year’s festivities will conclude in the small hours of Tuesday.