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Lakhs of devotees take part in 'Pongala' festival amid coronavirus scare


A view of Attukal Pongala gathering


Thiruvananthapuram: Amid the coronavirus scare and strict government guidelines issued in the wake of six fresh positive cases being reported in Kerala, lakhs of women took part in the famous "Attukal Pongala," one of the largest religious congregations of women, here on Monday.

Braving the scorching heat, devotees from the state and outside, converged in temple grounds, both sides of highways, roads and bylines across the capital city and prepared 'pongala', a sweet offering, on makeshift brick stoves.

Unlike previous years, women devotees, including children and elders, could be seen wearing face masks while preparing the offering, as a precautionary measure in the wake of the virus outbreak.

People using hand sanitizers in between was also common. Some devotees complained that masks and sanitizers were out of stock in many medical shops in the city.

Preparing 'pongala' (sweet offering) is considered an auspicious all-women ritual as part of the annual festival of the Attukal Bhahavathy Temple here, popularly known as the "Women's Sabarimala."

Five fresh coronavirus cases, including three who evaded screening on return from Italy, were reported in Kerala, prompting the government on Sunday to sound a renewed alert.

Meanwhile, a three-year old child in Kochi tested positive for the virus, officials said on Monday.

The state had reported the first three positive cases in India for the deadly virus and had successfully treated them.

There were apprehensions about conducting the festival this time in view of the fresh coronavirus cases, confirmed in Pathanamthitta district on Sunday.

Medical experts had also warned against the mass public gathering of women from the state and outside and many even from foreign countries as part of the ritual during the time of the virus outbreak.

However, the LDF government decided to go ahead with the festival as months of preparations had gone in for the festival.

Health authorities issued strict instructions that those having cold, fever or showing any symptoms of the virus, should offer 'pongala' only in front of their homes and avoid crowded places.

They also directed people who had come from virus affected nations to offer 'pongala' at their homes, instead of joining people in the ritual at temples.

The district authorities made arrangements for foreigners to offer 'pongala' in their hotel premises itself.

Meanwhile, six foreigners who came to take part in the festival, violating the government directive, were sent back to the hotel where they were staying in Kovalam.

Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the hotels and resorts, who violate the directive of health authorities in the wake of the coronavirus vigil, would face stern action.

Twenty-three teams have been kept ready at various places during the festivities with 12 ambulances. Residents association members have also been included in the teams at various places.

District Collector K Gopalakrishnan on Sunday said video clippings of those participating in the festival would be taken.

This would help in tracing those with fever and cold and those who have come from affected countries, he said adding awareness camps would be held at Railway stations, bus stands and temples.

Meanwhile, with makeshift brick stoves, placed on both sides of the roads, and hymns of the goddess being chanted by devotees, the state capital appeared to have turned into a 'yaga sala'.

The festivities began at 10.30 am after the chief priest lit the 'pandara aduppu,' the main hearth at the Attukal Temple.

Following this, women devotees lit their brick stoves and prepared the offering with prayers

As per local legend, the Pongala festival commemorates the hospitality accorded by women in the locality to Kannagi, the divine incarnation of the heroine of the Tamil epic 'Silappadhikaram' while she was on her way after destroying Madurai city to avenge the injustice to her husband Kovalan.

Attukal Temple is called the "Women's Sabarimala" as only women perform rituals, while it is predominantly men who undertake the pilgrimage to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala.

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