For the first time in its recent history, the Kerala capital on Saturday witnessed the famous Attukal Pongala, one of the world's largest all-women congregation, without the mass gathering of women devotees in public places and long lines of wayside make-shift hearths.
As authorities have issued strict instructions in view of Covid-19 spread, the annual pongala ritual was confined to homes this time unlike lakhs of women devotees gathering in and around the city roads and bylanes and preparing the offering for the deity as part of the ritual.
As per the instructions, none were allowed to offer 'pongala' (sweet offering) in public places or on roads. Instead, they could make the offering from their homes. No priests would visit home to sanctify the 'pongala' but devotees can do themselves, it said. The ritual at the Attuakal Devi temple here was limited to the offering prepared at the 'pandara adupu', the main hearth.
Temple tantri (head priest) handed over the flame from the sanctum sanctorum to the meshanti (chief priest) to light up the main heart by 11 am. Following this, women devotees lit their brick stoves at homes and prepared the offering in earthen pots with prayers.
Many ardent devotees, who had been offering pongala at the temple compound or its premises for years, were disappointed due to the present instructions.
Gomathi Amma, a 65-year-old woman, said she was waiting eagerly for the pongala day and it was painful that she could not offer the ritual at the temple premises.
"I have been offering pongala since my teenage days without any fail. We used to walk many kilometres to reach the shrine with articles including bricks to prepare the pongala. As far as I remember, it is for the first time that no one was allowed to prepare pongala in front of the Goddess," she said.
Though there was coronavirus scare last year also, the ritual was held as usual and lakhs of women devotees had taken part in it. Preparing 'pongala' is considered an auspicious ritual of the annual festival of the Attukal Bhagavathy temple.
Braving scorching heat and humid climate, women from all over Kerala and outside the state used to converge in grounds and both sides of the highways, roads and bylanes across the capital city and prepare 'pongala', a mix of rice, jaggery and scraped coconut in fresh earthen or metal pots to appease the Goddess.
The offering was usually made in makeshift brick stoves, placed on both sides of the roads.
As per local legend, the Pongala festival commemorates the hospitality accorded by women in the locality to Kannagi, the divine incarnation of the heroine of the Tamil epic 'Silappadhikaram', while she was on her way after destroying Madurai city to avenge the injustice to her husband Kovalan.
The temple is called the 'Women's Sabarimala' as only women perform rituals, while it is predominantly men who undertake the pilgrimage to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala.