Warmed By The Hearths Of A Female Faith

Posted on: 26 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Reporting of temple festivals in India has this year been dominated by disaster, yet as Jill Fordham reveals, this should be no reason to stay away from these cultural celebrations.

In an inspirational celebration of womanhood, the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple Festival of Pongala, held in India’s southernmost state of Kerala, this year broke the Guinness Book of Records for the largest single religious gathering of women in the world.

On 22nd February 2008, over 2.5 million women flocked, not only from Kerala, but from other Indian states and all over the world.

Picture Gallery

You can view all Jill Fordham's photos from the festival here.

Held on the ninth day of the ten-day long temple festival in the Malayalam month of Kumbham, the state capital of Trivandrum plays host to the record breaking festival near the silver sanded stretch of southern coast.

Mythology has it that Attukal Bhagavanthy is the divinized form of Kannaki, who was the devout wife of Kovalan, a merchant who was falsely implicated and killed by the Pandya King of Madurai for having stolen the gold anklet of the queen.

Enraged at this, Kannaki is said to have set fire to Madurai. Legend has it that she travelled to Kerala and stopped at Attukal, where women in the vicinity made Pongala offerings to appease her.

Today women come here to offer Pongala - rice cooked with ghee (clarified butter), jaggery (unrefined sugar) and coconut - to receive the blessings of the goddess, for reasons most often related to the welfare of their families, but also for those of their own.

There is an extraordinary spirit of unity, whereby irrespective of caste, creed and social status, devotees stream into the city from early morning, carrying pots, utensils and bundles of firewood, where they pitch their wares along the roads and side-streets that encompass the seven kilometer radius of the shrine. 

Some will have arrived several days earlier, to secure their site on the most auspicious plots of land. Here they prepare Pongala offerings in earthenware pots warmed by the hearths of flames, fired by the conviction of female faith.

The proceedings begin at 10am when the priests light the ceremonial hearths in the temple precincts. This provides a signal across the city for the women to light their hearths in preparation for the Naivedyam, the ritual offering to the deity.

Then at 3pm the Pongala is offered to the goddess, as the temple priests sanctified the offerings by the sprinkling of holy waters, after which the pilgrims then embark on the tortuous and traffic snarled journey home.

It was by chance that I had first become aware of the festival, when only two days previously, I had asked my rickshaw driver Sam, to take me into the city to do some shopping. He steadfastly informed me that Trivandrum was out of bounds to men on Friday, and indeed to anyone else with any sense, as a result of the thousands of women that were expected to converge on the city.

I enquired some more, and saw no reason why I should not attend what I perceived would enable me the experience of some authentic Indian culture. I persuaded him otherwise, and in the knowledge that he would have to leave me in the suburbs of the city, there followed further negotiations as to the time.

He advised that it was best to go later in the afternoon, and after the fires had subsided, as the heat of the flames when coupled with that of the sun, would prove too scorching to bear. But for me there was no negotiating this point, for I had already fixated images in my mind of colour and chaos, surreally composed within smoke filled streets of piety and devotion.

So 10am it was, when he collected me for the city, whereupon I took to the streets, a western stranger in a Malayalam woman’s world. Far from paling from significance, I courted a cheering, albeit at times curious smile from most faces I met. The spirit of camaraderie was instantaneous and infectious, and I relaxed into my role of participating in this remarkably heartening event.

Every conceivable space was lit with the fire of stoves, behind which sat women, whose warm demeanour in their vivid attire and sparkling jewels, was set dancing in the firelight.

The air was laced with the sweet aroma of delicately flavoured rice dishes, most typically therali and also papayasm - both festival favourites made with rice flour and jaggery whilst flavoured with spices and coconut. The women usually fast on the day before Pongala, with the fast broken, only after the Pongala has been prepared.

There was a true spirit of companionship within the air, that extended beyond the streets and from within the homes of those en route to the shrine. Their doors were open, to provide welcome space, rest and refreshment for women who had travelled from afar. Whilst outside the proceedings were more lively, with the chanting of devotional hymns, interrupted with the explosions of fireworks, all against a cacophonic background of loudspeakers.

Above there was a helicopter, provided by the local flying club, which showered flowers and miniature pictures of the goddess on the devotees below. There were street stalls, selling fairground tack and trinkets, alongside volunteers from social, political and religious organisations, offering free meals and snacks. For Pongala is a time when philanthropic groups ensure generosity abounds.

Essential drinking water was in good supply, courtesy of the Keralan Government, and medical teams who had set up temporary clinics and mobile units were in evidence along the way. Yet still within the environs of the festivities were to be heard sirens, seeing to sufferers of sunstroke and hearth burns, in need of more specialist care than that available on the streets.

Despite a police presence on every corner I turned, I experienced difficulty in making myself understood. It had been my intention to reach the temple, but I was in fear of losing my way.

I had by then walked for over an hour beneath a diminishing pall of smoke that covered the city, through which were beginning to beat the boiling hot rays of the mid-day sun. Overwhelmed by the sensation that I was sinking in this sea of humanity, I allowed commonsense to prevail.

I had gauged that it would likely take me longer to return, by which time I would have exhausted the reserves needed to withstand such heat, and so reluctantly I retraced my steps back to where I had come.

Perhaps Sam was right in suggesting that I should have gone at the end of the day, but then there was not a minute of my experience that I would have missed for the world.

Moreover, within each moment exists the minutiae of another world, and if you miss one, you will soon be recompensed with another; that typifies the mystery of this majestic country, ‘incredible India’.

Further Information

Precise dates and timings of festivals can be obtained from local tourist information offices:


Charter flights and holidays to Kerala are available onwards with:


Scheduled flights to Kerala are available throughout the year with:


By Jill Fordham

Have you been abroad on a religious festival? Are you planning an unusual trip away?

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