Pongala lesson in quick clean-up

Workers tidy up streets within hours of record gathering of women wrapping up ritual cooking

By Ananthakrishnan G. in Thiruvananthapuram
  • Published 7.03.15
The road leading to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple at 5pm. (Below) The same road at 6.45pm after it was cleaned up. Pictures by Ananthakrishnan G
Pongala outside Thiruvananthapuram railway station. Picture by Sajith Gopal

Thiruvananthapuram, March 6: The world's largest gathering of women also offers the swiftest lesson in Swachh Bharat.

An army of civic workers carrying brooms and dustpans descended on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram yesterday afternoon as soon as a gigantic wave of women receded after making an annual offering to deity known as Attukal Devi.

The ritualistic offering is known as Pongala, a porridge of rice, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, nuts and raisins, and is cooked by women devotees on lakhs of fire-places that mushroom for a day around an 8km radius at almost every open space in the state capital.

The event, billed as the largest congregation of women on any single day on the planet, made it to the Guinness World Records in 1997 with an attendance of 15 lakh. Since then, the number has ballooned to 25 lakh while some estimates put it at 30 lakh.

In order to consecrate the offerings, holy water used to be sprinkled from a helicopter. In recent years, the holy water is passed to numerous satellite shrines from the main Attukal temple, 2km away from the Padmanabhaswamy temple that is nowadays referred to as "the richest temple in the world" because of the discovery of a treasure trove that is yet to be fully evaluated.

Once the offering was done, the streets used to be littered with the detritus of the mass cooking.

For the past few years, however, a cleaning operation with clockwork precision has been put in place. As soon as the ritual draws to a close around 3.30pm, around 2,700 civic workers fan out across the city and go to work.

Around 1am, the streets all across the city are cleared. The main streets are then washed and by daybreak, visitors often wonder if it was the same place they had seen the evening before.

Now the irony. The mop-up marvel unfolds in a city where there has been no solid waste removal for the past three years after a popular protest shut down the main garbage dump in 2012. Efforts to find an alternative space didn't bear fruit and waysides became the new dumping grounds.

The Left-ruled civic corporation and the Congress-led state government blame each other for the stalemate in what was once considered the cleanest city in the country.

The cleaning personnel - half of whom are women - say the only motivating factor is their faith in the Goddess, the divine form of Kannaki, a symbol of the woman wronged and whose curse reduced Madurai to ashes in Chilappatikaram, the Sangam work in Tamil literature. Legend has it that Kannaki took a sojourn in Attukal after the destruction of Madurai.

"We don't get any substantial allowances for this demanding work. But still we do it as our offering to the Goddess," said a civic worker who requested anonymity, lest it annoy her supervisor.

Corporation additional secretary G. Padmakumar said: "We have written to the state government seeking funds for providing a special allowance to the staff who are engaged in this cleaning operation, but we haven't got a reply."

He expressed the hope that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would take note of the toil that ties in with his Swachh Bharat campaign and provide assistance to the personnel.