I was riding my bike not long after 8 in the morning on the 11th, heading into town for Attukal Pongal. When an event is the record holder for the most women gathered in one place – and the number is up to 4 million at this point – one would expect traffic to be a mess. Like most sporting events, though, people trickle in and pour out, so the ride in was a cake-walk.
If by cake, you mean millions of women sticking to the shade but ready for some sacred fire, and by walk, you mean rolling through among a half-dozen other kinds of traffic.
Gopikrishna is Maya’s son and took most of the photos in this post. Here’s the photographer at work.
That’s Maya in the foreground, Sangeetha in the middle ground, and Gopikrishna in the background.
He asked to see the camera, I showed him a couple basics, and he was off! When I say off, I mean I looked around and I couldn’t find him. As you see, though, he was doing great work in the meantime.
Pongala is a ceremony wherein I set up a pot of water on three bricks (or would have, but Maya beat me to it), put some coconut palm fronds underneath, and wait for the temple fire to make its way to me. The temple has an eternal flame, and every one of the 4 million fires was lit from that flame.
The fronds are folded in half and allowed to stick out, then pushed in a little at a time as they burn down. Maya, middle, and Naishnavi mess around while I get ready to burn!
I ended up with sore thighs from doing hundreds of deep knee bends.
The fire also creates a decent amount of smoke…times 4 million.
Once the water boils, I put in the rice, circling the pot three times with each handful.
Then I waited for the froth.
When the pot boils over or at least froths up heavily, women all around ululate.
That’s when a believer will pray for what they want over the next year.
Then it’s actually cooking. Adding jaggery, cardamom, raisins, cashews, and stirring the pot. And tending the fire.
These women are no fools. They stuck to the shade wherever possible.
Hot, smokey work.
Gopikrishna went all over getting these photos.
There were hundreds of these little clay pot setups.
We also made other things to go with the pongal. I think this is called kadai.
Eventually, there’s a hot, sweet porridge ready to eat.
The family who hosted me were incredibly nice. I fell in love with the Amma of the bunch, Shamala. What a lovely woman!
She isn’t certain how old her wedding photo is – at least 45 years.
I got a bit confused over who’s related to whom in what ways, partly because my friend Maya says this other woman is her sister/cousin and calls her Maya Chechi. If you were reading before, you’ll know that means something like big sister but doesn’t necessarily connote shared ancestry, let alone shared parents.
This is my original friend Maya and her sister/cousin Maya along with Naishnavi, who is Maya Chechi’s daughter if I’m not mistaken (though I easily could be).
I think, but don’t quote me, that Maya (top) and Naishnavi (right) are family. Nandana (left) and Neeraja (bottom) are sisters. And maybe all are related, but maybe they’re just neighbors!
As usual, being an unbeliever in a sea of belief created no tension, partly because no one brought it up!
Thank you for this Dena!
SO happy you went to this ceremony!!! This looks a liitle bit miserable to me because of the heat, but I would be there in a blink if I could. Not to be missed on your own volition, obviously, as a traveler, woman, feminist, and general experience savorer. How auspicious that it was so close! The nation of India is mighty vast and somehow you are just a bike ride away? Go, go, you must go!
So many questions. I will pester you for all the smells and feels when you get back, but just a few popping through my mind —
What does the ritual mean to believers, theologically and symbolically and spiritually what is happening here?
It looks like mass-but-individual communion, in a way. Sharing a meal is crucial in a lot of traditions. Do you share porridge?
Who sets this up, who cleans up, what happens to the extra food?
Why does the festival happen at Attukal?
How far do pilgrims travel?
How were you regarded, as a non-Indian? Friendly visitor, fellow pilgrim, voyeur? I saw a picture of another white women when I looked it up, and the newspaper caption was welcoming, something like “a visitor tends her fire next to a local woman, who helps her out.”
Are there rules/taboos against men or trans women (hejirah, is that right?) being present, or do the women just pay no mind to interlopers and do their thing? Is there an age limit for boys?
What’s the flavor of the day? Festival, ritual, somber, celebration, secular, worshipful, what?
So grateful for the vicarious peephole. These abundant photos are super helpful, thanks Gopikrishna! I loved meeting your adopted family of women for the day. Especially Shamala. That wedding photo photo looks like Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck, made me smile.
Maya’s face (your Maya) reminds me of an illustration on the cover of a Lloyd Alexander book I read as a kid. Her nose is like my favorite one of a trinity of sister witches. The one most like my grandma, who had two cackling hag-ly sisters herself.
Just realized that was among my first aspirations, perhaps: to be a witch, a wise crone within a web of cackling women who know nature deeply enough to ask for magic.
And now I am that woman. And for this day, maybe even despite your unbelievably, so were you.
Enjoyed the story tremendously, Dena, you do seem to get around and what an experience to see the Attukal Pongal live!!! It would be interesting to find out some of the answers to Kates questions above – like “what happens to all the food that’s cooked?”
Thank you Gopikrishna for your impressions of this great festival seen through the lens of your (Denas) camera. Great pictures!!!