Cooking up Equality: Pongala at Attukal Temple


Abstract: This article examines Attukal Pongala – a contemporary women’s offering to the goddess Bhagavati at Attukal Temple in Kerala, South India – and its practices, myths and rituals from the viewpoint of the researcher and the women who participate. Interviews with women representing a wide socio-economic, community and religious spectrum reveal pongala themes of the essential equality of all people and religions, the necessity to share life-sustaining resources, the power of women who demand justice, the support offered by women’s community and the recognition of immanent divinity in each girl and woman.

Keywords: Pongala, Attukal temple, Sankritic/ Non-Sankritic traditions, Goddess Bhagavati, South India, menarche rituals, peace and harmony, sense of unity, empowerment, prosperity and health, women’s rights

Each spring, Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, India, shuts down for a day while over a million women of many religions, communities and classes line the streets with their pots to cook porridge for Attukal Amma, the Goddess at the Attukal Temple. They are performing a women’s ritual deeply rooted in ancient Kerala mythology and cultural tradition, which also has powerful meaning for women today, evidenced by its rapid growth during the past twenty years. This article examines Attukal Pongala – a contemporary women’s offering to the goddess Bhagavati at Attukal Temple in Kerala, South India – and its practices, myths and rituals from the viewpoint of the researcher and some Hindu, Christian and Muslim women who participate. Interviews with twenty-nine women representing a wide socio-economic, community and religious spectrum reveal Pongala themes of the essential equality of all people and religions, the necessity to share life-sustaining resources, the power of women who demand justice, the support offered by women’s community and the recognition of immanent divinity in each girl and woman. Contemporary concerns of the women interviewed are illuminated as they offer pongala to the Goddess in return for harmonious family relationships and good health, education, housing and jobs for themselves and their families.

Kerala is a small state in southern India whose socialist policies and funding in education, health-care and social programmes give the people of Kerala a basic security and many qualities of life comparable to Western standards (Franke and Chasin 1994; McKibben 1996). The goddess Bhagavati is central to life in Kerala, especially from January to April when each neighborhood shrine or temple has a community festival in her honour. Until twenty-five or thirty years ago, when caste barriers began to fall, women of the upper castes would have supplied lower caste women with the ingredients to offer pongala, but would not have cooked it themselves, and both families would have shared the porridge as a blessing from the goddess. Kerala may have had the most complex and restrictive caste system of any state in India, but paradoxically, has gone the farthest and fastest toward communal equity and justice (Franke and Chasin 1994 100). Women, who fifty years ago, could not have walked down the same street, now sit side by side and cook pongala porridge.

Until 1936 only a tiny minority of people were allowed in or near temples, so most community rituals centered around the more accessible sacred groves dedicated to a local goddess who was understood to be the protectress of that place. Pongala, the ritual boiling of rice, is part of the non-Sanskritic tradition in Kerala and was traditionally part of community rituals in fields or groves( kavu) sacred to Amma. Agricultural land around the small grove temples like Attukal has been transformed by people immigrating from the rural areas to urban or suburban neighbourhoods and the social organizations supporting the rituals associated with the fields and kavus have changed from rigid caste based hierarchies to neighborhood committees.

Some of these local neighbourhood, community and family kavus are developing into larger temples and are incorporating the gods and goddesses, iconography and rituals from many traditions. As they have evolved, most of these temples now have Brahmin priests and have adopted Sanskritic ritual practices, but some of the non-Sanskritic offerings associated with the kavu, such as pongala, have been retained with many communities and religions now participating in a ritual form which formerly was done exclusively by the lower castes.

Attukal Temple, now one of the largest and wealthiest temples in Kerala, followed this evolution from a family kavu to a large temple complex whose two gopurams 1 and ornate façade enclose the original Nair family sacred grove dedicated to Bhagavati. The small wooden temple shrine which houses AttukalAmma, although still open to the air, is now covered with gold and the deities in the inner sanctum are those traditionally associated with the kavu — Ganapathi, the Naga Yakshi and her family, and the guardian Maadan. The original Bhagavati who formerly had non-Sanskritic rituals and priests, was reconsecrated and reinstalled in 1979 and her chief tantri or priest is a Namboodiri Brahmin who performs Brahmanical rites.

Family System

From at least the eighth century A.D., a substantial proportion of the population of Kerala, including some Muslims, followed matrilineal descent and lived in joint families where children were raised by a woman and her natal kin (Aiyappan 1982, 201). In this system, known as marumakkathayam, none left their natal homes and a man’s primary responsibility was to his sister’s children, not his own. Female was an “auspicious category” and from the moment of her birth, a female was “perceived as the (potential) purveyor of prosperity, fertility, and good fortune.” (De Tourreil 1996, 17).

The system began changing in the early twentieth century because of the ridicule and pressure from western ideas of morality and for economic reasons and by 1976 it was legally abolished. Now almost all Malayalis live in nuclear families, but members of matrilineages attempt to retain close family relationships, coming together for Onam and family celebrations and retaining many of the positive attitudes toward women of the marumakkatthayam system.

Popular Rituals

At the beginning of this century, the most important and elaborate rituals centered on women and their bodies — talikettukalyanam was a mandatory pre-puberty ceremony for a young girl which “celebrated her as a source of power and life and claimed her sexual potential for the lineage” (Gentes 1992) and tirandukalyanam, a menarche ritual celebrating the onset of her menstruation. In the early 1900’s Bhadrakali (a fierce form of Bhagavati) worship, blood sacrifice, pre-puberty and menarche rituals were challenged by religious reformers, social activists, and advocates of equal rights who wanted everyone to have access to temples and to be allowed to adopt the deities and ritual practices of the upper castes. Families dropped the expensive public celebration and feasts of the women-centered rituals but some families continue today to hold low-key, private menarche rituals.

In contemporary Kerala, few public rituals center on women or feature women as the ritual medium. During the women’s festival of thiruvathira, celebrating Kama Deva, the god of love, women participate in ritual bathing, adorning themselves, dancing together and feasting. Thiruvathira has been a major women’s festival in the matrilineal communities but each year fewer women participate.

The pre-puberty, menarche and thiruvathira rituals depend on close communities of women who live communally and on spontaneous free time since the rites are timed with bodily processes and a lunar calendar. The separation of women into nuclear families and the conflicting demands of jobs and schools timed with a solar calendar make the traditional rituals almost impossible to perform. As they are fading, the Pongala festival at the Attukal temple is growing at an astounding rate. From a few women cooking in a field across from a small shrine fifty years ago, it has evolved to mass gathering of hundreds of thousands of women and Attukal temple, as a direct consequence, has grown to be a powerful and prosperous temple. Although daily pongala offerings seem to be an old tradition in kavus and domestic rituals in southern Kerala, the incredible growth of the temple and mass participation in the Pongala festival for AttukalAmma is a contemporary phenomenon.

The Pongala Festival and its Message

The pongala offering is simple and almost any woman can afford to do it. Rice, after being boiled out in the open in a new red clay pot over a coconut fire, is sweetened with jaggery, dark brown unrefined sugar. This form of offering by women to the yakshis and the fierce goddess Korravai appears in the Sangam literature of the fifth century( Parthasarathy 1993). In an ethnography from the 1930’s (Iyer 1937), pongala is described in tribal communities as an offering to the Sun or the Moon for protection from disease, in menarche rituals of various communities, in rituals done at the seventh month of a woman’s pregnancy, and in Irhava and Cheruman agricultural and kavu festivals to Bhadrakali.

The ten day pongala festival begins in the month of Kumbham (February/ March) on the day that the Karthika star falls. Many streets feature Devi shrines set up for the festival. In one shrine she is red, pale, formal, AttukalAmma sitting on a cushion of luscious pink and red flowers. In another she is shiny black, piercing, Karinkali (Goddess in her ugramoorthy or fierce aspect, she is from the mountainous areas), wearing a mala, a necklace of limes to cool her. It is auspicious to live near the temple since the pongala festival brings prosperity to those who live in her territory and who help her devotees, the women who come to offer pongala. As more women participate each year and extend the area of cooking, more of the city is brought under her domain. Some Christian and Muslim families invite women into their courtyards to cook pongala. Every courtesy is extended to friends who have been invited by the family and to those who just show up. While women offer pongala, girls under the age of eleven or twelve (the girls should not have experienced menarche), offer talapoli as a vow to safeguard them from disease, to increase their beauty and their wealth. The girls either walk slowly or are carried in their mothers’ arms to the presence of the goddess where they offer poli (arecanut flower bunches, rice and coconut) on a brass plate, talam to the goddess.

The only men who are allowed near the temple on pongala are priests or temple authorities, policemen and firemen or men who have special passes – difficult to get from the temple authorities – such as press reporters and volunteers to help with crowd control. Women say that it is important for them to do the cooking together and without men. They have this one day when they are not responsible for their husbands and families and they can be devoid of distractions and have a concentrated mind.

On the street leading directly towards the temple, loud booms and concussions of the firecrackers can be heard and felt. All Devi temples in Kerala have firecrackers as part of her ritual worship and women pay the priests to set them off to get Devi’s attention for their prayer. Bhagavati, who has benign and fierce aspects, also likes red silk, red flowers. She has dhamstras, animal-like fangs and small-pox pustules, she rides on a ghost, a vetalan, she is adorned with skulls and snakes and is loved as a benevolent mother. She carries a pot, a sword / sickle or a mirror. She lives in the temple, rice fields, the sacred groves. In various rituals and sometimes spontaneously, men and women go into trance which allows the goddess to continually communicate her wishes through them. The change in the representations of the Devi appears to be an example of the Sanskritization process, as local indigenous goddesses are being transformed into Brahmanicalpan-Indian deities. The women call the goddess of the festival AttukalAmma, but in none of the stories is she a biological mother. AttukalAmma is also understood to be Bhadrakali,4 “auspicious Kali”. In this form she is black or blue in colour and is often shown with a protruding tongue and wearing skulls around her neck and a belt of severed arms.

The image (pratistha) of AttukalAmma is made from the wood of a live jackfruit carved in the form of a young girl and covered with gold. The origin story of Devi which connects her to the Nair family shrine, now the heart of Attukal Temple is that she appeared as a beautiful young girl who asked to be taken by the Karanavar (the eldest male member of a lineage in the marumakkathayam system, is the primary ritual, social and economic authority figure for the tharavad) across the river. Devi disappeared but that night came to him in a dream and asked that he build her a temple. In another popular story Devi came as a stranger, an old woman who appeared to poor women in the neighborhood. The Dalit women took pity on her and fed her the little bit of food they had – rice and jaggery. Devi revealed herself as the goddess and told the women that this was now her favourite offering and that she would accept it only from women.

Tottampattu, a long oral poem glorifying the goddess is sung continuously for eight days of the festival to the accompaniment of drums and rhythmic clanging of cymbals. The song is sung by three old men who sit in a thatched shed facing Devi. This song, an integral part of the festival, recounts the story of Kannaki, a woman who was wronged, both by her husband and by her king. After the king unjustly executes her husband, Kannaki confronts him with the truth, severely censuring him and demanding justice. The king collapses and dies at her feet but Kannaki, still full of grief and fury, rips off her breast, a symbol of her sexual power, and hurls it at the city of Madurai setting the city aflame. Kannaki travels across the south of India until she reaches Kodungalloor, now the site of the most famous of the Kerala Bhagavathi temples. The most well known literary version of this story is the fifth century South Indian epic poem, Chilappatikaram , but oral versions in Kerala combine the story of Bhadrakali with Kannaki. Devotees believe Kannaki to be an incarnation of Kali and Attukal the place where she rested for the night on her way to Kodungalloor. In all versions of the story, Kannaki represents the capacity of divine power in female form to bring retributive justice to those the law fails to protect.

At the point in the tottampattu where Kannaki rips off her breast, the priest lights the first fire from AttukalAmma’s fire in the temple. The air is filled with the sounds of the women ululating, bells are ringing, the sound of firecrackers and drums is deafening, as the fire comes down the line from the temple, passed from woman to woman. Women reach over with coconut fronds and put them in the flames of the fire held by the woman next to them and then light their own fire. Immediately the air is filled with the smoke and heat of hundreds of thousands of hearth fires. It is interesting to note that many of the urban, upper caste women have incorporated changes consistent with their community customs. One is the use of white, polished rice for pongala that Brahmins use, preferring it over the red, incompletely polished rice used by the majority of the women. The other is the limiting of the boiling so that the pot does not overflow. Since the overflowing of the pot is the most important moment in the ritual, the difference between the communities is striking.

Deborah Neff (1995), in her ethnography on the kavu rituals of the Nair community observed that Sanskrit rituals intend to contain the power or shakti of the deity and non-Sanskritic ritual attempts to engage and increase the shakti. A striking example of this difference between the two traditions is at the moment of pongala – the boiling over of the pot. Brahmin women and women who have been instructed by them limit the flame so that the pot does not overflow. This practice has its origin in the fear that if the foam failed to spill towards the east, it would be bad luck. However, many women believe that the most important moment is when the pot boils over, spilling creamy foam down the side. A Nair woman opined that the pongala had to boil and come up out of the vessel. It suggested that the goddess had accepted the offering and granted grace. This seems to be a ritual illustration of Neff’s theory about the differences between the Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic traditions. The women out of the Sanskritic tradition want to limit the possibility of the pongala spilling the wrong way, so they stir their pot to control the process. The women out of the non-Sanskritic tradition want the fullest, most potent pongala possible and are willing to take the risk.

Women offering pongala have a firm belief that the goddess actively helps them by providing for them. The offering is made for the well being of the entire family, general prosperity and health. A significant corollary of the pongala festival is the obligation to share resources. Everyone who comes to a particular house to offer pongala are given food by the owner of the house. It is required by the goddess to share with strangers all resources necessary to perform pongala and it is believed that She is paying attention. As one of the women remarked, when one goes for performing this ritual offering, there is nothing that belongs exclusively to one. The transformed and blessed food, pongala, is shared not only with families and neighbours, but also with strangers. The goddess is said to provide protection from disease and from one’s enemies. Smallpox and cholera, the traditional diseases associated with the goddess, have been eradicated in Kerala but women promise pongala in return for protection or cure from chickenpox and other diseases. Some women believe that the heat and smoke of the pongala fires prevent future disease, especially smallpox and chickenpox. Some women belonging to the socially and economically oppressed classes, expressed a firm belief that the goddess actively helps and protects them. The fierce aspect of the goddess protects people from their enemies and wicked people ; at the same time she is a loving mother to devotees. Kannaki, for some women, also stands for justice – the justice due to an innocent, wronged woman. The epic story is well known to some women and one group of wealthier, older Tamil Brahmin women connected Kannaki to women’s rights and women’s sense of injustice, particularly the injustice inflicted by temporal authority, the king.

Many of the women mentioned peace of mind and a reduction in tension as rewards of the pongala, produced by a belief that they were taking some positive action and that the goddess was helping them. One of the women pointed out that there might be no actual reduction of sorrow but a feeling is created that one can bear the sorrow. Women stated that they achieved satisfaction and mental calm. One of the primary differences between a Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic offering is that in the temples of the brahmanical gods the offering must be mediated by the presence of the priest who is paid to prepare the offering and do the puja. On the other hand, women who make the offering with their own hands feel that the contentment they gain is priceless.

The phrase “Women’s Sabarimala” is used frequently by the press and the temple to describe Attukal Pongala. There are similarities, both in the large numbers of people attending and that the participants can be of any religion, caste or creed, but there are differences also. In contrast to the mostly men’s pilgrimage to Sabarimala, which has been plagued by near riots and concerns about ecological destruction, the newspapers comment on the calm behaviour of the women, that such large numbers can gather together in peace and harmony. A typical column from the English language newspaper, The Hindu, in 1997 described Attukal Pongala:

A parallel is often drawn between this strong gathering of women, and the similar number of men who throng the Sabarimala shrine. But for sheer discipline and order, there can be few parallels. There is no squabbling or aggressive competition. The entire process of waiting, cooking and the final offering reinforces the spirit of sisterhood. The significance of such spontaneous exercise of faith is immense. It is an occasion that rises above communal divisions and petty distinctions between women. There is a dignity about the proceedings which have remained incident-free for decades

Women speak with great pride of their festival: “it is the feeling of togetherness, unity. A women’s pride. Women! It is managed by women, organized by women, so it is a women’s ritual.” Pongala is a joyous holiday, a break from the routine and pressure of daily life, and an unusual opportunity for women to come together. It is an opportunity for them to leave the traditional role of the mother and the wife. It is probably not surprising that some women from the Latin Christian and Muslim communities participate in Attukal Pongala. From the earliest recorded history of Kerala there appears to have been a tolerance for and even promotion of diversity in religious expression. Any woman of any caste, religion, class or nationality is welcome to participate in the Attukal Pongala, and almost every woman can afford to do it because it is a simple, inexpensive offering. It is a day when the traditional hierarchy of caste and the contemporary hierarchy of class can be forgotten. There is a parallel in the traditions of carnival in Christianity in European, north and south American countries, when all social divisions are erased for a day –the reason that masks are worn. Several of the Malayali rituals such as teyyam, padayani, and mudiyettu have components of caste reversal and satirical farces that illuminate caste oppression and subject the dominant castes for censor and ridicule. Pongala does not symbolize the reversal of power of the dominant culture, but emphatically states the equality of all the women who are participating, and the presence of the goddess as an ordinary woman, as anyone. The pongala affirms the political, religious and social changes that have been underway for the past one hundred years and are still continuing.

Attukal Pongala which now extends for seven kilometers in a concentric circle from the temple, is growing each year and becoming more powerful because of the relationship between the goddess and the women. Many streams of Devi worship come together at Attukal. The fierce goddess of justice who protects the poor and oppressed, the metaphysically sophisticated and encompassing goddess of the upper castes, the agricultural goddess of the land who menstruates, the family Bhagavati who has been the center of family life for generations, Kannaki, the symbol of women’s rage at injustice, the amma who listens and cares for their children no matter what their “caste, religion and creed,” are all contained in the iconography, traditions and rituals of Attukal temple. Each year these women respond to Her, collectively, equally, exposing their auspicious bodies to the fire and smoke for continued health, prosperity and harmony in their families.

1. A feature of temples in South India, most commonly in Tamil Nadu. It is a pyramidal tower over the entrance that rises several stories and is sculpted with innumerable figures of gods and goddesses, animals, birds and human beings.

2. Scholars in this area suggests that during these rituals the young women were the goddess (De Tourreil 1996, Grahn 1999) and conversely, the goddess’s menstruation was an important annual agricultural ritual when for three days all work stopped, all contracts restarted and all debts were forgiven (Caldwell 1995; Gentes 1992)

3. Although menarche rituals are rare, Judy Grahn and I interviewed four young women who had recently had menarche rituals and videoed one of the celebrations.(Grahn 1999)

4. Elaborated in many versions, the basic story of Bhadrakali is that an asura, a male demon named Darikan, after undergoing arduous penance, asked Brahma to grant him the boon of immortality. Brahma asked Darikan whether he desired immunity from women, but Darikan contemptuously rejected this offer. Darikan proceeded to go on a rampage of destruction so horrible that the whole world and all the gods petitioned Shiva to save the universe. Helpless himself, the God used his energy to call forth from his third eye a goddess, Bhadrakali. Armed with all necessary weapons from the gods, she battled with the demon and finally killed it, thus restoring order in the world.

5. For a discussion of the difference in the concept of chastity in the versions in patrifocal Tamil Nadu and matrifocal Kerala, see ( Jenett 1999)

6. A trilling sound, kurava in Malayalam, removes all negative elements and restores auspiciousness.

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Is a doctorate holder and is Associate Professor at the New College of California, San Francisco. Interested in Indian cultural studies. Has published extensively in research journals.

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Is a doctorate holder and is Associate Professor at the New College of California, San Francisco. Interested in Indian cultural studies. Has published extensively in research journals.

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