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Sabarimala of women: Attukal Pongala festival celebrated for the first time in Georgia

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE

Atlanta, GA, March 21, 2024: A cold, windy winter morning notwithstanding, smoke billowed from cooking pots as close to a hundred women gathered to celebrate a unique Kerala festival brimming with tradition – the Attukal Pongala. Organized by the Kerala Hindus of Georgia (KHGA) on February 25, 2024, the ten-day Malayalam festival, traditionally celebrated by women at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, came alive in Atlanta at the Sri Shiva Durga Temple. Here, women gathered in the parking lot with gas stoves and pots adorned with pictures of the Goddess, lighting diyas and incense sticks.

Known as the Sabarimala of women, the festival is marked as the largest yearly gathering of women in the Guinness World Records, with approximately 1.5 million women participating.

A divine milieu filled the air as women bedecked in Kerala’s traditional Kasavu sarees, marked by the trademark off-white body and golden border that stands out for its elegance and visual restraint, gathered to prepare a spiritual food made of rice in clay or earthen pots to offer it to the goddess. Goddess Kannagi, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, is worshipped during this festival.

“We are really humbled and thankful to the Shiva Durga Temple of Atlanta and their main priest, Karthik Dixitji, for allowing us to use the temple premises to conduct Georgia’s first-ever Attukal Pongala,” said Salini Shajiv, a member of the organizing team.

The ten-day long festival begins on the day of Bharani (Karthika star) of the Malayalam month of Makaram-Kumbham (February-March) and ends on the tenth day with the sacrificial offering known as Kuruthitharpanam at night. The most important day of the festival is the Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam, which falls on the ninth day of the festival. The Pongala ceremony takes place on the auspicious day of Pooram star, coinciding with the full moon.

Due to unpredictable weather, KHGA organizers initially planned a seating capacity limit of 65 per temple indoors. To their surprise, within 2-3 days of opening the RSVP form, all slots were taken, though the deadline was far away.

After observing long days of vratham (fasting), all devotees, clad in their traditional Kerala Sarees or Set/Mundu, congregated at ShivaDurga Temple to perform Attukal Pongala – on the same day as the Pongala Maholsavam was conducted at Attukal Devi in Thiruvananthapuram.

Organizers provided stainless steel pots, ladles, bottled water, Pongala Kits (Rice, Jaggery, Shredded Coconut, Ghee, Cardamom), and flowers to all the participants.

KHGA organizers, in tandem with tradition, started with Ganapathy pooja and assembled devotees in front of Kanaka Durga Devi to seek blessings for a successful celebration. The preparation of the Pongala began with the ritual called ‘Aduppuvettu,’ which refers to the lighting of the Pongala hearth called Pandarayaduppu, which is then placed inside the temple by the priest.

The main pandaraduppu was lit by the temple priest as divine chants of Lalitha Sahasranamam reverberated through the air. As the pandaraduppu was lit, devotees began preparing their Pongala as per the instructions provided by the Pongala leads.

The preparation was a sight to behold, with sweet smells emanating through the air, spiritually strengthening all attendees.

“The highlight of the event was a Garuda (Falcon) circling around the temple Gopuram while I was sprinkling theertham (holy water) on the devotees’ prepared Pongala, which made this event even more auspicious,” said priest Karthik Dixit.

The ritual is only meant to be performed by women, and the Goddess, fondly referred to as ‘Attukalamma,’ is said to be appeased by this ritual. As the festivities advanced, the premises of Shiva Durga Temple reflected the divinity and festive fervor of Thiruvananthapuram.

“It was wonderful to celebrate Attukal Pongala, one of the most popular festivals celebrated in South Kerala, at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple, Thiruvanthapuram,” said Deepa Pillai, a member of the organizing team.

The organizing team included Salini Shajiv, Deepa Rajesh, Haritha Menon, Rajesh Pillai, Shajeev Padmanivas, Devidas Koyadan Chathoth, and Rajeev Menon.

“This is the first time KHGA is celebrating Attukal Pongala in Atlanta, and it was a huge success. It was so satisfying to see all the women celebrate with so much devotion. Our team is grateful to all the volunteers who helped immensely. And we thank priest Kartik Dixit ji for the wonderful venue and pooja, Sabi Raghavan for the wonderful food, and Joy Alukkas for supporting us,” said Mini Nair, a member of the organizing team.

About Attukal Pongala:

Attukal Pongala is a festival in honor of the Goddess at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The deity worshipped in the temple is Kannagi, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort.

According to legend, Kovalan, the husband of Kannagi, was given the death penalty by the ruler of Madurai for stealing the anklet of a queen. Kannagi succeeded in proving the innocence of her husband. She then left the city and on her way to the Kodungalloor shrine, she stopped at Attukal. Goddess Attukalamma is said to be an incarnation of ‘Kannaki,’ the heroine of the Tamil Epic ‘Silappathikaram’ written by the poet Illango in the 2nd century.

Thousands of women from Kerala and Tamil Nadu make offerings to the Goddess Kannagi by cooking Pongala near the temple. ‘Pongala,’ which means to boil over, is a customary offering to please the Goddess. It consists of a mixture of rice, coconut, sweet brown molasses, nuts, and raisins.

At the signal of the main priest of the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, women light the ritual fires for the preparation of the sweet customary rice at the predetermined auspicious time, in earthen pots. The entire temple area and its roads are filled with women preparing the customary rice on small hearths in neat rows. The ceremony is initiated on the auspicious day of Pooram star, coinciding with the full moon or Purnima. All these rituals occur amidst the beautiful musical rendering of the Goddess (Kannaki Charitam) during the Kappukettu ceremony. The main significance is the victory of good over evil. The ceremony concludes in the evening with an aerial showering of flowers and sprinkling of holy water by the temple priests to honor the most benevolent goddess, Sri Bhadrakali.

The festival in Kerala traditionally commences with the musical rendering of the story of the Goddess

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