Rasam travels IV - Trivandrum and Pongala

I honestly thought this trip was going to be like any other religious trip, which would constitute visiting a number of temples, mom praying with all her devotion while I look at the writings on the wall,the paintings on the wall,the murals on the wall, the intricately carved pillars to the flowers that adorn the idol whilst try not to explode with anger at the other hundred devotees fighting to see their god.

This was different.

I signed up for this trip, one for the experience of this event that gathered a few million women each year to flock Trivandrum to see their Goddess and to cook on the road in the most rudimentary manner using bricks and a mud pot; and two, to finally see this 900 year old temple that I've heard so much about - not because it's the richest temple in the world - but for its beauty and design. Trivandrum is also close to my heart because it's where my grandmother was born and brought up. So off I went along with my mother and my sister in law. From the time we hit Kerala, and with every passing town our train stopped, we could see women running to hop on - carrying mud pots, bags with rice, dried coconut stems, all for this one day event. We could already sense the energy from these women who were willing to carry heavy loads in the hot sun, travel a couple of hours to again sit under the sun to cook.

To me, it all seemed so absurd, illogical and uneccesary. But we'll come to that later. 

We stayed with Achu's (sister in law) aunt in Trivandrum. Appachi (aunt) along with her son and mother in law, were the most warm and welcoming to us grumpy travelers. Lie. Traveler - Me. Appachi made fresh food for me everyday, fresh Malayali food - that to me was heaven itself. Everything tasted so different - the sambar, the avial to the mouth watering banana pacchadi - was delicious. On the day of the Pongala festival, fearing that I may get sick with all the smoke, dust and heat, mother thought best if i didn't participate in the offering - I didn't complain. And so with great excitement and energy the ladies assembled their bricks and pots right outside the house. With the temperatures soaring with every passing hour, we eagerly awaited for the fire that would be passed along right from the temple to every makeshift stove. With the fire, the ladies got the dry leaves burning and started the process of making their respective dishes. It was a spectacular sight to watch so many women come out into the neighborhood as a community to make this offering. Not to forget the many number of men who were also present, some to help out the women, some from the temple, it was all surreal. Smoke, humidity and sweat filled the air as the ladies cooked. How they stood their ground to cook under this uncomfortable setting was and still is unfathomable to me.

As a bystander, I went from group to group, taking pictures, talking to people and trying to tell them in my broken Malayalam that I am indeed a Malayali from Bangalore, India - and NOT a foreigner. So what if I wore sunglasses and carried a DSLR and complained about the heat; us Bangaloreans are spoilt with our wEather conditions, what can I say.

Come noon, when the offering was ready, the pots were covered with banana leaves and left on the road till the priest came by to bless it. Post which, we ate. Although it is an offering to the goddess, we ended up eating it - we’re goddesses too, right? The payasams the ladies made were simple but tasty. Praise the lord. Now you would imagine that we would just put our legs up and relax after the event. No. This time it was my stubbornness that took us out to visit the centuries old Shri Padmanabaswamy temple at 7 in the evening. Stubborn because, I still hadn't visited the temple after coming to Trivandrum for the second time. I'm a lover of all things art and design and architecture, so for me not visiting this 900 year odd temple was inexcusable. So we got all dressed up in our Kerala sarees and went to the temple. At the temple I learnt to my dismay that phones were not permitted inside the temple complex. The temple in recent years have buffed up their security after insurmountable wealth was found hidden in numerous vaults under the temple complex. So no photography whatsoever. I was so disheartened hearing this, but, it couldn't dissuade me from getting inside. More than anything, I was excited to see the murals painted by Raja Ravi Verma. And it did not disappoint. The temple courtyard is adorned by a thousand beautiful pillars, and in the center of it all was the sanctum sanctorum.

By the time we got into the sanctum sanctorum it was 8pm, so the whole place was lit with lamps, no artificial lights, just plain old oil lamps, a thousand of them. Jaw dropped, I entered this magical room with hundred other strangers, pulling and pushing and chanting their way through to the front of the deity. Whilst trying to keep my calm, the surrounding mesmerized me, I soon saw the murals by Raja Ravi Verma and stood with open mouth admiring it. 

I was soon pushed to the front of the deity itself, who was a little hard to see considering it was a little further away, beyond three doors, keeping it's devotees from seeing it's full 18ft form. I could finally see after my eyes adjusted with the little light that lit that inner sanctorum. Dumb struck by it's scale and beauty, it was something I hadn't ever seen before. Most of the Hindu gods I has seen till then, were all in standing or sitting form.

This deity, was lying down in what looked like a hard-earned nap on a snake, the hands were not stiff from holding a 'mudra', they were relaxed. And the face, most beautifully carved face that looked like nirvana. All this I could make out in the 5 seconds I stood in front of the deity, before I got pushed out.

Since we went on the day of the festival, the crowd was double of what a regular day would see. So, we decided to go the morning of next day also. Needless to say, the next morning the crowd was a lot lesser, and this time we could go closer to the deity and added bonus, I was able to get a closer look at my beloved murals too. They were spectacular! I have been a fan of Raja Ravi Verma's paintings for a very very long time, so to be able to see his work up close was very special. I got a closer look at the deity too, this time I was able to stand and admire the idol for a good 15 seconds before I got yelled at. The priests doubled as guides, telling us how long the idol is and why three doors block us from getting the entire look. All in all, I went home much happier than the previous day. I took a few pictures outside the temple complex but nothing comes close to the beauty inside. 

So at the end of it all, I sat in the train wondering why we do what we do. Why thousand women from all over come to Trivandrum to make this offering. Why they put themselves in the way of suffering the heat and smoke of it all. I couldn't come up with an answer. Being an atheist, this blind faith confuses me and I often refrain going to temples because I don't find peace there, most of the temples are after money, and the people after finding solutions in a higher power. Temples are being made into full grown businesses complete with merchandise.

I would love to share a quote my uncle shared with me a few years back. I’ve posted this on my Instagram feed many times; I love the simplicity and clarity of this quote, I hope you will too.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: We stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
— Christopher Hitchens

I believe the real gods and goddesses reside in your parents, siblings, family, neighbors, friends and passerby's and YOU.


Travel Tips -

  1. Visit the musical hall inside the temple. Mind-blowing.

  2. First class train cabins are overrated.

  3. Joy of waving at kids from the train - priceless.

  4. Carry sunscreen. Loads of sunscreen.

  5. Prepare to be pushed, pulled and yelled at, at temples.