Pongala in progress

A sea of women returning from Pongala


I first met John Mary in the mid nineties, when he was the Chief News Editor at New Indian Express,Trivandrum. I remember him as a bearded, cheerful and peaceful man living with his children and charming Brahmin wife, not far away from his office near Sasthamangalam. Indeed, he and his wife have gracefully played hosts on many weekends to our motley bunch of friends. The food was generous and the ambience lovely. We shared a potpourri of friends including writers, journalists, movie technicians, doctors, builders, photographers, pensioners, assorted adventurers and career drinkers.

Those days, other than the now extinct Country Club, our favourite hunting ground was a quaint, crumbling old place called Palm Lands, a stone’s throw away from the Government Secretariat. There were about twenty five private rooms with attached baths, all occupied by individuals on the way up, stagnant or washed out, as one may see it. There were also some refugees, as in all cities, who needed a temporary camp before launching their next pursuits. Whole families of toddy cats lived above the wooden ceilings, coming out to play in the trees on full moon nights. Yes, Palm Lands had its Sharks, Sheikhs and Good Samaritans.

Palm Lands comprised of a group of century old, single storied tiled buildings. There were long verandas and big windows with folding wooden shutters, typical of colonial Kerala architecture. The grounds were large, with parking area, palm trees, an ancient mango tree and a particularly large almond tree. The courtyard was almost always littered with fallen leaves and twigs broken off by the wind. Dusty cars and bikes were parked carelessly. An old woman of dubious past came from the notorious nearby slum and swept the courtyard and verandas when it suited her. She would also buy us cigarettes and bottled soda for small considerations. Palm Lands was indeed prime nostalgia material. During its heydays Palm Lands was the residence of people’s representatives belonging to Sree Moolam Praja Sabha, an ineffective flatterers’ assembly put together by the King of Travancore.

Coming back to John Mary, my friend with whom I have never had a cross word, he used to visit Palm Lands most Sundays, when the gang gathered to discuss anything from movies and literature to legalisation of prostitution and accepting gay people into mainstream life. We had a couple of retired army officers in our fold and the window sills would be lined with rum bottles. Brand names like Hercules, Contessa, Buccaneer, Old Monk, Christian Brothers, Old Port, Negro, Black Panther and Celebration mixed freely with water, soda and on special occasions, tender coconut water. (Believe me, there is no greater soothing mixer in the world than the last mentioned, lending palatability and respectability to the harshest paint remover ever imbibed by man).

John was a very soft spoken person and was very up to date with happenings around the world. Driving up in his new Maruti Suzuki, which few of us could dream of owning, he usually came with a container of delicious home cooked food and a bottle of ‘good something’ that the rest of us wouldn’t waste our money on. When we ran out of essential supplies, he would be the first volunteer to jump behind my dated, noisy Enfield and venture out for replenishments. It was a great pleasure to be with him, because he was not your standard paparazzi, freeloading and fouling up everything in range.

As one gets older, the bush that you beat around becomes more elaborate and denser. Right now, mine is as big as a medium sized tiger sanctuary, and of course, as is the general rule, without any tigers. This miserably wet, cold English morning, I am brought to remember John again after more than a decade. My good friend Najeeb Arcadia has forwarded me a link on Attukal Pongaala. The article dated 02/03/2010 is published on the BBC News site and is authored by a certain John Mary. Coming from Trivandrum, it can not be anyone other than my long lost friend. I also assume that there is no other John Mary in south India whose article will be accepted by BBC.

The BBC Article

Being an original native of Trivandrum, I can claim that I have more than a rough idea of the Attukal Pongala festival. Going through John Mary’s article, I wish to elaborate on the following points.

The Hindu deities and schools of worship can be more or less classified as Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Shaktheya, being respectively based on Vishnu, Shiva and Shakthi. The last mentioned, is feminine and is the material representation of all universal power. Shakthi in several different forms is symbolized in all Hindu schools of faith, whether Vaishnavite or Shivaite. She is Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Maha Kaali, Ganga and Kannaki of the Tamil legend (in her later spiritual form). ‘Bhagavan’ and ‘Bhagavathi’ broadly represents male and female forms of Hindu divinity. In short, any male deity can be addressed as Bhagavan and any female deity can be Bhagavathi. The deity at Attukal temple is widely believed to be a manifestation of Kannaki. Tantrik rites practiced at a particular temple determine the particular manifestation (or form or ‘bhava’) of the Bhagavathi enshrined therein. The statement in the article that Attukal Bhagavathi is an incarnation of Saraswathy and Kali needs to be examined. These two forms stand farthest apart in the manifestations of Shakthi. Shakthi in plain translation comes out as power. (Here I am not ignoring the Bengali concept of Kali also being the God of Knowledge, the story of Kalidasa etc. But Attukal is nearer to Adi Shankara and too far south. The rites of worship at Attukal, as far as I know, are of a ‘satwika bhava’, suitable for a calmer deity).

The article states that the women devotees ‘howl shrilly’ at the culmination of this religious event. I find the same an unfortunate choice of words. One howls in pain and anger. Howling is also associated with dogs and wolves. The peculiar sound made by women devotees is a form of yodelling. In south Indian Hindu tradition, it is an auspicious vocalisation associated with temples, weddings, births of babies and the crowning of kings. It is definitely not howling. In vernacular, this rather high pitched call is known as ‘kurava’ and can be heard a long distance away, which may well be the purpose.

Pongala is not a meal. It best describes the moment when the cooked rice and jaggery boil over the brim of the cooking pot. The offering may also include other sweet concoctions and rice cakes.

As John Mary mentions, Pongala was indeed not as elaborate thirty ago. It was mostly the domain of the working class women of old. (Read labour class. Fifty years ago not even 1% of educated women from middle and upper class families worked). But today, one will find the rich and poor, young and old, natives and pilgrims from far away at Attukal. You will need them all to make up three million women on a single day in a single town at the same temple. The Guinness Book of Records vouches for the fact.

In the past, most paddy farming communities had their harvest deities. These deities were briefly enshrined and worshipped in temporary temples called ‘Mudippuras’. When not worshipped, for the rest of the year, the deities were kept safely in the landlords’ matriarchal houses. It is judged that long ago, Attukal deity too was a Mudippura goddess. When the growing cities swallowed up all the paddy fields, the harvest festivals came to an end. Some affluent households made permanent temples for these family deities as a mark of respect and to preserve the traditions. The Mudippura temple at Jagathy, Trivandrum is another classic example.


In this little write up here, I am not attempting to correct a respected and senior journalist like John Mary. All I want is to add a couple of notes of my own. One may read John’s  original material at

I haven’t seen or heard from John in twelve years or so and would love to hear from him. I hope he is doing well at what he does best.

My maternal grand father’s elder brother, a certain Mr Sthanu Pillai, from a small township called Neyyattinkara in the outskirts of Trivandrum was the House Manager at Palm Lands during its glory days as the residence of the King’s ‘sycophant parliamentarians’.

All the last occupants were thrown out and Palm Lands was demolished about seven or eight years ago. I can not blame the real owners of the property for doing so, because it was a pot of gold from the point of view of real estate developers. But while it lasted it was one of the last bastions of free thinkers and loving friends in an otherwise uncaring city. Today, it is truly prime nostalgia material for a few dozens like me.

The official website of Attukal Temple is

I have heard some weird pronunciations for Attukal Pongala. It is best read as ‘Aattukaal Ponkaala’.

Picture courtesy,

Any suggestions for additions or corrections to this post are welcome. Cheers.



  1. udaikrishna

    hi prithvi that was a “kool” piece of rejoinder to the orginal article. good to “read you” again. and then in continuation to your rejoinder let me put in one. the kurava is meant to avoid hearing any kind of bad omen; like crying, something falling down etc. thats why during thalikettu for example kurava is made at that moment

  2. Hi, The word your BBC friend should have been looking for is ululation. This refers to the ritualistic noise made by women in various cultures in the eastern hemisphere.

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