It is uniquely thrilling to be among two million women cooking rice pudding on a hot, dusty street. Such was my luck to find myself in Trivandrum for Attukal Pongola – the world’s biggest gathering of women who on the 2 March came together each to offer a pot of sweet, sticky Pongal to the Goddess Bhadrakali.
I had happened to be in town for a hospital visit the previous day (more on that coming up) and had seen the preparations: women marking out their territory with small piles of bricks and bags full of ingredients along every street in the town, regardless of the tropical Keralan heat.
The level of dedication required for this act of spiritual devotion became all the more impressive when, not long after our small ashram cohort arrived in town the following day, the ceremony to light the pudding calabashes began. This is done from fires located at small shrines dotted around town where the women queue to light long, dry leaves for their terracotta and metal pots. The smoke from these leaves and their fires soon transformed from atmospheric to entirely overpowering – our eyes streamed as the women cooked, the heat coming from above and below I thought unbearable, though I don’t recall seeing a single beaded brow among the chefs.
The day culminates in a procession to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple which, like true Englishmen and women, our little group made slow progress toward in the midday sun. In a charming role reversal, along the route men seemed to be charged with handing out watermelon and lunch to the ladies free of charge, and even to us. Indeed, rather than shunned – as tourists generally should be – we were wholeheartedly welcomed, with one man openly thanking us for visiting Trivandrum while trying to warmly thrust food into our hands. That was a first for me in any country.
The support for the event is vast, with armies of policemen and women (indeed, many policewomen, which was pleasing), ambulances and helpful men on hand to serve the weary pilgrims while mega PA systems were blasting devotional chants and impressive light displays were waiting for darkness to project the goddess and her pantheon into the sky. Even the women’s prison opened its gates and allowed the inmates to participate in the day.
Upon finally reaching the temple we took one look at the queue, another at the line of ambulances outside and a final at the impenetrable pile of shoes below us at least 20 metres before the temple entrances and thought better of it. None of us soft westerners, it seemed, had even half the mettle of these women. Devotion, it appears, breeds endurance.