Hearths on the Highway: millions of women gather for Pongala Festival

Pix courtesy : The Hindu

(Published in Australian Women Online, March 2010)

The Guiness Book of World Records has declared the Pongala Festival in Southern India, as the largest religious congregation of women on earth. In 2010 more than two million women made the pilgrimage to Thiruvananthapuram to cook on the streets for the Goddess, in what some have described as the best symbol of women’s empowerment ever witnessed.

It’s almost midnight on Saturday, February 27, 2010 but Thiruvananthapuram, the sleepy town, which draws its shop shutters by about eight at night, is still wide awake. The nerve centre of the city looks like a landscape of migration, the railways stations and bus-stands are literally under siege, only the crowds seem to be inward bound and those that come in are curiously and predominantly of the female gender.

The highway roads that lead to the city are congested with vehicles bursting at their seams with occupancy, more crowds coming in. In the vehicles that are already parked on the side roads, some women prepare to settle for the night; knocking at the doors of the houses in the vicinity for use of the toilets. The hospitality is very warm and its not just the toilets that they get to use, they are offered excellent home-cooked suppers and a place to sleep too, in spite of the fact that the house seems to be overflowing with guests that night. The visitors are concerned about another apparently minor fact; they have to reserve a spot on the street for a hearth they are going to need tomorrow.

The roadsides are piled high with earthen pots and business is brisk. There is a hot demand for cotton saris too. Thiruvananthapuram gears up to become the City of a Million Hearths tomorrow. This is the Pongala, a festival of women, for women and by women; a celebration of womanhood. The Guinness World Record Book of 2007, page 89, accords this mammoth female mela the honour of the ‘largest religious congregation of women in the world’. But in reality the under-current of the Pongala festival is much more than mere religious fervour.

A few million hearths smoke their way across creed and class barriers every year on the occasion of the full moon of the spring season, February-March in tropical Kerala, at the tip of South India. Pongala, a woman-only celebration, gathers women sans barriers on her roads. Literally squatting on the roads, they cook as an act of appeasement to a valiant super power, who is also a woman whose response to injustice is legendary.

The Pongala happens right in the arteries of this tiny town, which has less than a hundred and fifty square kilometres of land area. A ride around the city, which itself is quite a task with the milling devotees on the road, now reveals rows and rows of make-shift stoves arranged in symmetric rows along the roads which usually mill with traffic on any day.

Tomorrow, these hearths made of three bricks kept at strategic angles will be fuelled by that delicate timber called the kothumbu sourced from the top of the ubiquitous coconut tree. Atop each hearth an earthen vessel will hold a mixture of rice, sweet brown molasses, coconut scrapings and water which will be cooked to perfection into a tasty and sought-after devotional offering.

The Hearths at the Attukal Pongala Temple Festival

A visit to the temple is mandatory on the previous day; if you are a man, you will not be allowed anywhere near the areas where the festival is in progress – you must belong to the fairer sex. The only concession is if you are a badge wearing member of the temple volunteer group or the police force. Otherwise, the festival is through and through a women’s event.

It’s finally 28th of February and by now, over twenty square kilometres of the city streets have been confiscated by the female brigade. No vehicles now ply within; the police and volunteers stop them at the outskirts. Huge containers of food arrive and the first round of lemonade is being lapped up by the women; it’s hot on the streets. No, please don’t pay, it’s all free. Later on you will be offered a variety of free food too.

The households of the city are citadels of hospitality today. There is a shade, a drink and food for any devotee in almost all houses, and many people consider the offer of hospitality in itself a devout act. The social barriers melt away and the ladies who would hardly notice each other on normal days now stand together beside a burning hearth and tend to their divine concoctions in similar earthen pots.

The security concerns of such huge gatherings are colossal, crowds and fire are a lethal formula for disaster; and there is an army of official security from the police personnel of the state and unofficial security, as well as help from the volunteer organisations on duty. The numbers are put around 5000 police men and 500 women constables plus several senior officials. Close circuit cameras monitor events at important points. Volunteer organisations are at work around the clock providing medical aid, food, water and other help. But surprisingly, there is no bossing round, the words are pleasant and attitudes are helpful.

Announcements are heard on the spaces to be maintained between each stove, and a warning to the devotees to wear cotton clothes is repeated. This year there are special announcements about using sun-baked earthen bricks for making hearths, a sign that the organisers are becoming environmentally conscious as well.

It’s now 10.30 am and the divine hour has struck.

Cannon sounds indicate the lighting of the sacred hearth inside the temple premises from a spark inside the lamp flickering before the idol in the sanctum sanctorum. The chief priest does this with absolute devotion and the millions of women gathered on the roads stop in their tracks to look skyward with folded hands for a prayer. Some are loud, some pray in their hearts. The streets resound with ululation, a symbol of sacred moments. And the flame is quickly passed from hearth to hearth in an unbelievable and superb gesture of community participation. The smoke soon rises enveloping the city in a gray halo.

Veteran Pongala participants are seen handling not just one hearth but sometimes up to a hundred and one hearths in divine offering, an auspicious number! Others with less expertise with a wood-fuelled stove and more used to microwaves struggle with one grate, eyes streaming from the smoke and sweat under the summer sun which bears down without mercy. Soon another cannon sound indicates the boiling over of the Pongala, the divine moment awaited by all. Ululations rise again above the smoke screens and it’s an intense moment of prayer. Folded hands, closed eyes and praying lips unite the 2.5 million womenfolk in a moment of devotion.

Now the wait begins, for the temple representative priests to bless the offering with scared water sprinkled on the offering on each hearth. Meanwhile, its relationship time; numbers are exchanged, addresses collected and goodies shared. Finally, the priests arrive. Around 200 priests from the temple squad split to bless the offerings with holy water from the temple at about 2.45 pm and then its time for the exodus.

Once more Pongala concludes and the traffic wardens take over the duties of safe departures. Miles and miles of vehicles make a beeline out of the city and the railways allow more schedules and more stops. The final devotee leaves the city and the security personnel heave a sigh of relief.

The participation this year has been counted at approximately 2.5 million. Consider 2.5 million burning hearths on twenty square kilometres of land! Fire, gender security issues, pollution, traffic problems, the concerns are numerous. But the festival remains a spectacle of brilliant organising, the Pongala has been a success.

Now for a look at the streets at the post-Pongala scenario! Miles of black bricks, burnt firewood and disposed earthenware choc-c-bloc on the streets. A nightmare for any environmentalist but now the hygiene army of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation moves in. About 1000 sanitation workers clear about 105 loads of waste from the roads and use hose pipes to water the streets to settle the dust. By about 10 pm the city is as good as new. The ceremonial spatter of rain appears this year too and sprinkles Nature’s approval of an event well-conducted.

There has been considerable interest generated in the event abroad, especially among scholars and researchers who work on women and cultural studies. Professor Dianne Elkins Jennet, a Professor at the New College of California has done her doctoral studies on this unique aspect of devotion that is essentially Dravidian and indigenously ‘lower-class’ but now adopted by all communities. Diane Jennet herself has participated in the Pongala whenever she could make it.

The bridging of myth and literature is a delightful and outstanding component of the celebration, Silappadikaram is a Tamil classic and its heroine, the brave and bold Kannagi is the heroine of this festival too; the same holds for the sharing of ethos with the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu which has another culture and language. In a world harassed by war and hate-culture, perhaps these festivals are islands of relief and real saviours of human kind.

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