The towering main gate of the Attakulangara women’s prison is left agape. Jail wardens and the relatives of prisoners sit among others in chaotic clusters, gathering bricks, washing rice, powdering cardamom and occasionally checking their wristwatches to see if it is half-past ten—which is when the pandara aduppu (main hearth) of the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple will be lit, marking the start of Attukal Pongala. This festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala draws the largest congregation of women in the world, ushering it into the Guinness World Records when 2.5 million ladies offered pongala (sweet rice porridge) on March 10, 2009.
The jail superintendent has abandoned her khakhi for a gold-rimmed Kerala kasavu saree. She points to a massive bronze utensil called the uruli, almost the size of a well, saying “That is where pongala will be made for the inmates.”
A pair of eyes stare at me from beyond the creak of the prison door, “Won’t they be allowed to cook?” I gesture. “Only a selected few. Later,” she says impassively. I catch a glimpse of a woman before she drags the door shut. The creases in her saree match with the white in her hairline; exhilaration brims in her eyes. I look around for her daughter or her mother in the swarm but I am not allowed to chat with them so I move on, hoping that she is among the chosen cooks.
On the full moon day in the month of Kumbham, on the penultimate day of the 10-day-long Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam, Kerala’s capital readies itself for an annual holy reboot. An 8km-diameter of the city is occupied by women decked in Kerala sarees, who sometimes arrive days in advance in a duel to secure a hearth close to the temple. On this day, most men are restricted to household chores while priests, policemen, reporters and volunteers offer help.
Apart from the ambulance and fire engines, all vehicles are sentenced to their parking sheds. With every road an extension of the temple, the only way to get around is to walk. So I slowly wade past the hearth-lined street landmarked with miniature shrines that are erected at every junction and garlanded with currency notes, often followed by makeshift stalls that serve free idli-sambar and buttermilk.
Two hours on foot and I am at the Attukal temple. In the backdrop, men hum the thottam paatu, a poem that embodies the torment faced by Kannaki, the main diety. According to the myth, after destroying Madurai in retaliation to the King’s wrongful execution of her husband, Kannaki set off for Kodungallur, stopping for a day’s rest at Attukal, where the local women offered her rice and jaggery for lunch.
Known as the Sabarimala for women, this year 42 lakh women are estimated to offer pongala. It is the largest throng of women in the world, and yet it is only at the temple premises that I really have to watch my step so as to not touch a clay pot.
Precisely in the thottam paatu when Kannaki tears her breast and hurls it at the city of Madurai setting it on fire, the head priest lights the main hearth. The fire is then passed via coconut fronds from one woman to the next like a game of Chinese whispers—their prayers, the secret.
All the religious women I know, from the neighbour to my maid, are somewhere on these streets, praying and cooking. I look up at the diminutive sculptures on the gopuram (ornate entrance tower at the temple) that are engaged in a mute play recounting the injustice. Kannaki, her husband, the king, the cow and the rage are all obscured by waves of smog.
I break away from the lore surrounding the temple, on to the streets blinded by smoke. When I open my eyes next, I see froth spilling from the clay pots in succession. Pongala means “to boil over”. An old woman, her skin like gnarled wood, joins her hands and ululates drawing attention from every corner. She nudges the neighbouring girl, whose clumsy fingers give her away as a first-timer. “The most important thing is to let the gruel overflow, there needs to be more than what is required if you want to have a prosperous year,” she advises authoritatively.
Across the street, a crew of a TV channel wait for the reporter’s eyes to stop tearing from the fumes. Women wail in unison, some collapse while others use towels to mask their faces. The entire city is gradually engulfed by the sacrificial fire—by afternoon, almost 140 casualties including fainting and burns will be recorded. The smoke from the burning fronds stirs up coughing fits, streaming eyes and running noses. My own skin is a shade of tormented red. Coupled with the hearth fires and the afternoon sun, I feel like I am on the pyre with nowhere to run, every street in the city wilting in smoke.
At 3.15 p.m., a shower of holy water and flower petals from a helicopter flying over the city will signal the end of the festival. But unlike the virtuous women who have sat making therali (rice flour stuffed into a cone of bay leaf), mandaputtu (a steamed rice sweet) and other delicacies that they will soon take home, I speed-walk my way out of the maze of fire; the smoke coupled with the heat and suffering making atheism almost look tempting.
Akshaya Pillai is struggling to prove that a journalist from a sleepy town can sustain by freelancing. She reviews books for the Hindu Literary Review; writes about art, culture and cinema. Her stories have also appeared in Open, Outlook Traveller, Motherland and MW.