Thiruvananthapuram: Braving the rising mercury and smoke rising from their earthen kilns, more than three million women devotees cooked rice and jaggery as offering for the presiding deity of Attukal Bhagavathi temple here Sunday to celebrate the Pongala festival.
The devotees carrying bricks, firewood, rice, jaggery and coconut waited to make an offering of cooked rice to the presiding deity, believed to be an incarnation of Kannaki, the central character of the Tamil epic "Silappathikaaram".
The ritual started when the chief priest lit a pot, which was brought from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The fire was then passed on to the devotees to light their kilns. The devotees had begun arriving here a few days earlier to find a place near the temple, dedicated to Attukal Bhagavathi.
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 offering is prepared using rice, jaggery and coconut and is cooked in three to four hours` time. When the priests at around 3.10 p.m. started spraying sacred water from the temple on the cooked rice, the women packed their offering and began their return journey.
"This is my first visit to the temple and I came here after my neighbour persuaded me to tell my woes to the Devi. Believe me, I feel so much relieved after taking part in this event. Despite being in the heat and with smoke all around, I never had any uneasiness. Certainly I will be back next year," said 56-year-old Shakunthala Nair who belongs to Attingal near here.
Gopinathan Nair, president of the temple trust said the event went off smoothly.
"More than 3,000 police personnel, including 500 women, were deployed and everything went off without any problems at all," Nair said.
Veteran singer KJ Yesudas and a few political leaders were also present on the occasion.
Leading south Indian actors, including the regulars like Chippy, Kalpana and Praveena were seen busy preparing the offering.
The Guinness Book of Records listed the festival as the world`s largest annual gathering of women in 1997, when 1.5 million devotees converged here Feb 23.
According to legend, Kannaki destroyed the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu after the king of Madurai wrongfully imposed death penalty on her husband.
Kannaki then travelled to Kerala, where she rested for a while at Attukal and women are said to have cooked pongala to appease her.