Looks like if I’m not travelling, I have nothing to write about 😀
Well, not entirely true. I did write a love letter, for CB‘s latest contest “love is in the air”. There were two parts in the contest: on was to create badges, and the other, to write a love letter. Well, halfway through the design, I realised the deadline had passed 😀 so i gave up. Which meant I also gave up on the yet-to-begin love letter, till CB extended the deadline. (Damn! There was no excuse i could give after that :D)
Today is Pongala, and I thought I might write about how we celebrated it.
For the uninitiated, Pongala is a religious festival celebrated by Hindu women. ‘Pongala‘ means ‘to boil over’ — and on this day, women devotees get together for the ritualistic offering of payasam: a porridge made of rice, sweet brown molasses (or sugar), grated coconut, nuts and raisins.
It’s celebrated across a few temples in South India, but it’s been made famous by the Attukal Temple at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. It’s the one time when the sleepy Thiruvananthapuram city witnesses a night that’s longer than the day 😉 Women from all over South India (I guess there are people from all over the country now) gather in the city, near or in the temple premises, stocked with the ingredients, round earthen pots, bricks and tiber from the coconut trees.
On a day or two prior to the festival:
Women travel to the city and set up temporary homes on the roadsides. They book their spots on the roads, lanes, footpaths and shop fronts in a radius of several kilometres around the temple (fighting for the one nearer to the temple). The bus stands and the railways station are NOT the place to be, if you’re not a devout devotee, and especially of you’re a member of the male gender 😉
The roads are filled with vehicles bursting with their occupancy. The city dwellers don their hospitality hats and wait their turns to help the devotees. They let their courtyards be used as tent spots, let the devotees use their precious toilets, offer excellent home-cooked suppers and comfort elements — for they consider the very act of a hospitality a means to please the Goddess!
A visit to the temple is mandatory on the previous day; so is a fasting. If you are a man, you will not be allowed anywhere near the areas where the festival is in progress—unless you’re a badge-donning member of the temple volunteer group or the police force.
On the Pongala day:
All the arteries of this tiny town—less than a hundred and fifty square kilometres of land area—becomes look-alike rows of make-shift stoves ready to be lit. No vehicles ply within the city; the police and volunteers stop them at the outskirts. Volunteers set up free food-and-lemonade stalls at every 500 meters!
Security is the biggest concern of the government on the day—what combo could be worse than crowds of women and fire!? Over 5000 police men and 500 women constables plus more senior officials. Volunteer organisations work around the clock to provide medical aid, food, water and help. And the day experiences an uncanny pleasant demeanor by all people, and there is no bossing round, no bad attitudes, no negativity.
A cannon sound reverberates when the priest lights the hearth within the temple. The flame is quickly passed from the sacred hearth to others, and in an unbelievable and superb gesture of community participation, over a million hearths burn up class, creed and sects on this day, as the Devi replaces everything in their hearts with devotion and prayers.
The city is then enveloped in a cloudy cloak.
While some struggle to light a hearth and handle the smoke, sun and the streaming eyes, there are others who, having participated for many years, handle up to a 101 hearths: an auspicious number for everything divine. Another cannon announces the “boiling over” at the temple, and then the wait begins — for the temple representative priests to sprinkle the offering with scared water, as a sign of the Goddess’ blessing. Once the holy water is sprinkled on each one’s earth, they’re ready to head home.
Women also use this opportunity to exchange addresses and goodies. Traffic begin its craziness and vehicles make a slow-moving bee-line to various parts of the city and out of it.
Over 2 million burning hearths and twenty square kilometres of land! Fire, gender security, pollution, traffic problems, the concerns are numerous. But they’re all overcome and the pongala continues to be a success year after year.
After the festival:
The city is a mess after the festival: miles of blackened bricks, firewood and earthenware. You may not have seen where the food-and-lemonde stalls were, but the left over cups and the paper plates will tell a tale. And before one knows it, its time for the sanitation workers to jump in for the rescue of the roads. By late night, the city is back to what it was two days back 😉
A ceremonial rain (which has marked its presence every single year) washes down the pollution and the smoke: Nature’s certification of a festival well-celebrated.
Of the pongala tales I’ve heard, the one bit that has been vivid is that it used to be a festival for the poor. Apparently, in the olden days, the house helps were the ones who used to participate in the festival. It was considered a festival / a day off for them, to revel in the Goddess’s blessings and attention. But over the years, as the festival became more popular. it became a matter of ‘participation’, I guess. And today, like everything else, we have a pongala that’s commercialised. Media channels interview ‘stars’ who ‘share space with the non-stars, the lesser mortals*rolling eyes*! It’s no longer a day that allows the “poor” to have a dedicated day with the Devi. Sigh!
Anyway, today being pongala, Amma was busy and ‘not-on-kitchen-duty’. Though initially she had been all sad she wasn’t at Thiruvananthapuram to be a part of it, when we decided “God’s everywhere” and she could easily “boil over” up on our terrace, Amma was thrilled 😀 Well, heaven was just a little further up than three stories high 😉
After a long time, I was put on kitchen duty for the day 😀 But of course, I woke up late, and Amma had to take care of breakfast. Boy, was she pissed!
After all the scoldings and everything for ‘almost’ spoiling her day, I went to the kitchen 😀 And while she sat out in the hot sun, lit a fire and made the pongala payasam, I stayed back in the cool kitchen and made Mushroom Biriyani for lunch 😉
Pumbaa binged on it too 😀 He wagged his tail, licked me and (almost) said “Pumbaastic lunch that was!” 😀 😀 😀
Took the recipe from Nag’s Edible Garden and added my own 2 cents (i tnd to do tht all the time; mostly, the result is yumm, but i’ve had my share of yucks too) 😀
Personally, I’ve never quite liked this festival — only because pongala, as far as i can remember always constituted an off-work day for Amma: but she’d be out the entire day and would come back in the evening tanned, tired and tyrannic 😀 Well, she had a migraine problem and over 5 minutes in the sun could give her a headache…so imagine a whole day out there in the heat, smoke and pollution. Pongala evenings were always of payasam, and “be quiet, i have a headache” and us tiptoeing around to give Amma a quiet time. No, not a good, ‘fun’ festival 😀 And a sun-hater myself, I’ve NEVER been out there for a single pongala!
The only good part was the holiday at school and college — but again, since the traffic comes to a stand still the entire day, the ‘holiday’ always went for a waste and we were all stuck at home. I really don’t think such things should be imposed on the entire population. What of the people who do not participate, the ones who do not believe in it, the ones who might have an emergency? life cannot come to a standstill just for the sake of a celebration 😦
Anyways, after a rather long time, I enjoyed this year’s ‘pongala‘ — one that was minus the crowds, minus the pollution, minus the smoke, minus the heat, minus an Amma who comes back home in the evening with a bad headache and a badder mood 😉
The payasam was extra tasty this time! 🙂