It’s a strange admission to make but until the evening before we knew nothing about the Attakul Pongala. At that point four million women from all over South India and beyond were preparing for the journey to Thiruvananthapuram only a few kilometres away, or were en route or, more likely, were already there. According to Sachin who mans the desk at Hotel Aparna and who told us about it, this festival has made the Guinness Book of Records as the largest congregation of women in the world, a claim supported by the websites I’ve looked at since.
The focal point of the Attakul Pongala is the ninth day of the ten day festival in the Bhagavathy Devi temple. In a radius of six kilometres out from the temple the roads are closed and the devotees gather. We sensed the significance of the event as we approached in a tuk tuk a long way out from that perimeter. The verges of the roads and every patch of waste ground were double and triple parked with trucks, buses, cars and minibuses and, long before we arrived at our drop off point, we passed rows and rows of women setting up their ‘hearths’ for the ritual Pongala.
The roundabout where we got out had been commandeered by the police and, at the entrance to the streets beyond, banks of speakers had been set up, each blasting out music at such an ear splitting volume that we could only make arrangements with Asam, the tuk tuk driver, for a later pickup with hand signals. I read later in the Hindu that laws had been introduced this year to limit the decibel level but to no avail.
A quick glance at the internet will tell you all you need to know about the significance and rituals of the Attakul Pongala so I won’t go into that here. What we saw when we walked beyond the police cordon were streets empty of traffic but lined with women of all ages, and not just on the roadsides but in the alleys running off them, in school grounds, in fact wherever a space could be found, to set up three bricks and place an earthenware or metal pot on it and to light a fire. Some had arrived days before to make sure they had a spot in the shade, under a palm or in the shadow of a building, but most stood in the scorching heat of the sun, cheerful and uncomplaining and enjoying the holiday atmosphere.
At 10.15 the hearth in the temple had been lit and fire from this was passed along the 25 kilometres of streets surrounding it to four million or so hearths where four million women – the figure seems extraordinary, but this is India, were boiling up a mixture of jaggery, rice, spices and coconut to make a devotional offering.
The smoke from the hearths made life even more uncomfortable for the long-suffering women and our eyes were soon streaming as we stopped to talk. It added to the otherworldly atmosphere of the day however and I’m looking forward to processing the many photos I took with the camera (as opposed to the mobile!).
When we left just after midday the women had abandoned their hearths to form long patient queues for food and water. What a remarkable logistical exercise it had been for the organisers
The following day The Hindu devoted several pages of text and pictures to record what it described as the ‘Wave of Devotion’ which had engulfed the city, to the successes of the authorities in coping with it – and to the hours of traffic chaos as the women set off home in the late afternoon.
For the last two days the seas have been up. Some of the surfers have even managed to catch a decent wave and the lifeguards have been busy rescuing swimmers from the beaches where there are several drowning a each year. We witnessed one of these rescues yesterday and another this morning.
This is life guarding Indian style. In his speedos and vest and with a paunch he may not be the Hoff but he bravely went into heavy seas this morning to pull a swimmer from the heavy surf.
In an hour’s time we are due to catch the Rajdhani Express for a 15 hour overnight trip to Goa. In the four weeks or so since we booked the sleeper tickets we have shuffled up the Waiting a List from 10 and 11 to one confirmed place and one still waiting. So one of us can definitely travel. What will happen to the other we shall have to wait and see when we get to the station. But this is India and anything is possible ……