Life is Sweet at the World’s Largest Gathering of Women

Once a year, women—and only women—from all over Kerala careen down the narrow banana- and coconut palm-lined roads in shared jeeps, buses, and cars to the Attukal Temple in the southern city of Trivandrum. This charming town full of old trees and ancient temples, at the very bottom of the Indian subcontinent, normally has a population of less than 1 million. But on this day it swells to some 3 million people, about 2.5 million of whom are women.

We’d come to Trivandrum with birthday cake for our operations director Girish Gopinath, whose mother lives in town.

Girish’s mother feeding him birthday cake

After a special dinner prepared by Girish’s wife and mother, he drove us to the festivities.

Pongala, or Pongal, as it is known in Tamil, is a harvest festival devoted to Devi, mother goddess of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and her devotees: women and girls. It is also known as the Sabarimala for women. While the latter is exclusively for men, Pongala and the Attukal Temple on this day are quite the opposite. The festival is said to be the largest gathering of women in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Despite the hugeness of the event—miles of Christmas lights dangling from six-story trees, electrified images of peacocks and stags and deities—there’s a typically Malayali orderliness about Kerala goddess worship. Though there are thousands of women camped out on the temple grounds, the washrooms are starkly clean and manned by attendants. In contrast to what you’d find in northern India, the entry into the inner sanctum of the temple is a neat queue of women waiving numbered auction paddles. Once their numbers are called, they race indoors single file in pretty sarees and flyaway hair. Classical Indian music throbs on subwoofers in the background.

After a blessing in the sacred sanctum of the temple, the idea goes, each woman gathers her firewood and bricks, which she either packed in her careening jeep, or purchased on the streets of Trivandrum. The next morning under blazing blue skies (little pollution in Trivandrum), women, thousands of them, line the street leading to the temple. Then they start cooking in unglazed earthen pots.

Girish says the event marks the victory of Durga over a demon, but as a man he’s not too aware of what this is about. Wikipedia gets interesting, however: the an ancient history of Pongala is written in blood sacrifice, of people or roosters. These days Pongala means pudding: lush mushy rice sweetened with coconut, ghee, jeera, and jaggery, and made complex with hours of smoke, as an offering to the goddess. We tasted the pongol of Girish’s wife Smitha and his mother, and it was delicious.

After all this fanfare, we realized where all the men had gone. Ostensibly to collect truckloads of watermelons. To chop the melons and make juice. Buy water bottles, ice cream. Male volunteers had lined the street all the way out of town, passing out snacks and drinks to the weary women of Pongala. The next day these men cleaned the streets. Trash was sorted from bricks, which ingeniously are gathered to build homes for the poor.  

American males are invited to volunteer as Pongala interns next year.

Purvi Patel

Co-founder of Camp Cardamom in Kerala, India

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