Women devotees throng Kerala capital, cook rice on streets (Lead)

March 10th, 2009 - 6:54 pm ICT by IANS  

Thiruvananthapuram, March 10 (IANS) An estimated three million women devotees from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu converged on streets leading to the Attukal Bhagavathi temple here Tuesday and cooked rice offerings on thousands of firewood stoves for the goddess in one of the largest religious gatherings in southern India.
The offering is made on the penultimate day of the 10-day-long Attukal Pongala festival, which is often referred to as the equivalent of the Sabarimala pilgrimage for women.

The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the world’s largest annual gathering of women in 1997, when 1.5 million devotees converged here on Feb 23.

“This time the number of devotees has crossed three million. The women are seated on roads. This year several more roads have been occupied compared to last year,” Sreekumaran Nair, the temple superintendent, told IANS.

Attukal Bhagavathi is believed to be an incarnation of Kannaki, the central character of the Tamil epic “Silappathikaaram”.

According to legend, Kannaki destroyed Madurai in Tamil Nadu after the king of Madurai wrongfully imposed the death penalty on her husband. After that, Kannaki travelled to Kerala, where she rested for a while at Attukal and women are said to have cooked pongala to appease her.

Devotees arrived here early Tuesday with earthen pots, bricks, firewood, rice, jaggery and coconut to cook the rice offering.

About 20 sq km area around the temple was choc-a-bloc with women and only those who had reached three days ago managed to get a place to cook near the temple. They lit their stoves after the chief priest lit the main stove in the compound at about 10.30 a.m.

The event, where poor people rubbed shoulders with filmstars, ended at about 2.30 p.m. after the rice was ready and the priests had sprayed holy water from the temple on all earthen pots.

Miss World Parvathy Omanakuttan said this was the second she was offering pongala.

“Last time I won the Miss India crown and became the Miss World runner up after I came here. Amma is really powerful and one really experiences a feeling of satisfaction after doing this pongala. I am really happy I am here,” said Omanakuttan.

“This is the tenth time I am offering pongala. I believe Amma is really powerful. One has to be here to experience the goodness,” said film and TV actress Chippy.

Malayalam superstar Suresh Gopi, who is present alongside the priests when the main stove is lit every year, said that he feels fortunate to be able to participate in the event.

“I keep aside all other work to be inside the temple for the lighting of the main stove. Despite the massive crowd, everything takes place with absolute calmness,” he said.

Sukanya Devi, a resident of Kollam who had come here with her daughter, said: “We attended this festival for the first time last year. Soon after, my daughter got married. We are here this time to give thanks to the goddess.”

Commissioner of Police Ravada Chandrasekhar said 2,000 policemen and 500 women constables besides 15 deputy superintendents of police and three superintendents had been posted for security during the festival.

The day of the Attukala Pongala was a holiday in the district except for IT firms.

The railways ran special trains and added additional coaches for the devotees, while hundreds of stalls put up by social organisations supplied free food and drinking water to the devotees.

After the sea of humanity dispersed, municipal corporation employees took to the streets, clearing away the hundreds of thousands of bricks and earthen pots as well as other debris.

“The whole city seems like a holy place during the festival. I will do my best to see that this is turned into a national pilgrimage centre,” said Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T. Achary.

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