The Attukal Bhagavathy Temple is one of the ancient temples dedicated to the divine mother in Kerala. It is very close to the famous Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum. It is popularly described as the Sabarimala of women, since women form the major portion of the Devi’s devotees. The Goddess in the temple of Attukal is worshipped as the Supreme Mother, creator of all living beings as well as their destroyer. All pilgrims who visit the Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple make it a point to visit the shrine of the supreme Mother known as Attukalamma. When the world was riddled with demonic forces, the gods prayed to Vishnu to send some power to protect them and his maya took the incarnation of the Devi to annihilate evil and protect the good in the world in the present era of Kali. Attukal Bhgavathy is one such incarnation.
According to mythology, Attukal Bhagavathy is supposed to be the divinised form of "Kannaki", the famous heroine of Chilappatikaram, the sangham work of Tamil Literature written by Ilamkovadikal. Kovalan and Kannaki are the heroic characters of this famous work of literature. Kovalan was unjustly accused of stealing the queen’s anklets and executed. Kannaki in her wrath destroyed the ancient city of Madurai. It is said that on her way to Kodungalloor (another famous Devi shrine of Kerala) she went first to Kannyakumari and then stopped at Attukal. The songs of the "Thottampattu” sung during the annual temple festival, are based on the story of Kannaki. Moreover, architectural depictions of Goddess Kannaki seen on the gopuram of the temple substantiate this story.
Kannaki is supposed to be the incarnation of Parvathy, the consort of Siva. The all powerful and benign Attukal Bhagavathy reigns eternally supreme at Attukal and looks after her devotees as lovingly as a mother does her children.
There are many stories connected with this temple. It is said that the goddess revealed herself to a fervent devotee of a notable family called the Mulluveettil family. One evening a young girl appeared before the head of the family while he was bathing in the Killi River and requested him to help her across the river. He was so impressed by the charm of her personality that he prostrated before her with awe and reverence and helped her to cross the river and invited her to his house nearby. The whole household was charmed by her sudden appearance in their midst and started preparing some food and other offerings for her for they felt sure she was of divine origin. However by the time they finished their preparations the girl had vanished.
That night the old man had a dream in which she showed herself as an idol and demanded that he should establish an abode for her in the nearby grove. She promised to mark the exact spot with three lines. The next morning the old man went to the spot revealed to him in the dream and to his great surprise he did find three marks indented on the ground. He lost no time in erecting a temple on this consecrated spot for the goddess who had blessed him with her beatific vision both physically and in his dream. This temple remained unnoticed for many years. But due to her increasing power more and more people were drawn to her. Fairly recently, the temple was renovated by the local devotees. They also installed a beautiful and majestic icon of the Devi with four arms, bearing weapons of destruction, like the spear, sword, skull, shield etc. The consecration ceremony of this temple was performed by no less a person than the high priest of the Badrinath Temple in the Himalayas.
There are two idols of the goddess in the sanctum sanctorum. At the centre of the Sanctum the original idol of the goddess Attukal Bhagavathy has been installed. It is enclosed within a gold covering embedded with jewels. The second idol of the goddess is installed besides the original one.
The present temple is a harmonious conglomeration of both Kerala and Tamil styles of architecture. It is fairly new and lacks the charm of the ancient temple architecture of this region. However there are some beautifully carved figures of Mahishasuramarddini, Goddess Kali, Rajarajeswari, Parvathi with Lord Siva and various other depictions of the goddess in her various forms in and around the temple. Around the corridors surrounding the temple, various other gods are depicted as well as the epic stories of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu . On either side of the elegant front gopura or gate - are the icons based on the story of Goddess Kannaki. On the southern gopura, the puranic story of "Dakshayaga", where the goddess Sathi immolates herself in her father’s Yaga or fire sacrifice is vividly depicted. The decorated gate at the entrance of the temple is another example of modern sculpture.
The Pongala Mahotsavam is the most important festival at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple. It is actually an offering of rice to the goddess cooked by women in the grounds adjoining the temple. Though this practice is prevalent in some parts of South Kerala and Tamil Nadu, nowhere has it gained the popularity that it has at Attukal. In fact it has gained world fame. Women bring rice and milk and sugar or just plain rice as well as fire wood and make little ovens in the grounds of the temple and cook the rice and offer it to the goddess. They undertake it in fulfillment of their vow. They vow that they will offer Pongala to the goddess if their desire is fulfilled. Many, many miracles are reported as to how the goddess has fulfilled all types of wishes from the desire for a bridegroom or a baby to the recovery from a serious illness. In ancient times this was a small affair conducted within the precincts of the temple grounds. Hardly ten or fifteen women took part in it. But due to the increasing popularity of the goddess and her ability to fulfill all the varied desires of her devotees, more and more women are taking part in it.
Slowly the place for making the little ovens spread beyond the grounds of the temple to the neighboring regions and now it has spread right up to the big temple of Sri Padmanabha Swami which is about five kilometers away. From a small one day affair it has become a ten-day program commencing on the Karthika star of the Malayalam month of Makaram-Kumbham (February-March) and closing with the sacrificial offering known as Kuruthitharpanam on the tenth night. It is on the ninth day of the festival that the world famous Attukal Pongala Mahotsavam takes place. The entire area of about five kilometer radius around the temple including the grounds of the houses of people of all castes, creeds and religions, open fields, roads, commercial institutions, premises of Government offices etc. are all used as the consecrated ground for conducting the Pongala ritual. Thousands of women devotees come from different parts of Kerala and India. Drawn by the magic of her wish fulfilling ability you find that in the last few years some foreign women have also taken part in the ceremony.
The festival is exclusively for women and the enormous crowd, which comes to Trivandrum on this auspicious day is reminiscent of the Kumbha Mela Festival in North India except that it consists entirely of women while in the Kumbha Mela, the sadhus (yogis) predominate. It is a sight to be seen indeed where thousands of little fires are lit and women start to blow desperately at their flames. The temple priest blows the conch and this is the signal for all the women to place their little pots, preferably of mud, containing rice and water on the fire and blow and blow at the fire to cook the rice. Many of the devotees come from very rich families and have never lit an oven with firewood and have absolutely no idea how to handle it but the locals are very helpful and assist them to get a roaring fire going. When the rice is cooked the conch is blown again and all the offerings are taken to the temple.
The author visited this temple with the web master and his wife. We were taken there in a very strange manner. We knew nothing of the temple history though I had heard of the Pongala festival. I never realized that the celebrated temple was so close to the Padmanabha Swamy temple. It was the Devi alone who guided us to her sacred presence. My friends who were American Hindus had accompanied me to many Kerala temples without any problems. Unfortunately they were stopped from entering the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple without the permission of the Raja of Travancore! Naturally all of us were very disappointed. They waited outside while I made a quick visit to the temple and told Lord Vishnu how my friends were stopped from entering his wonderful temple.
When I came out we found an auto rickshaw driver and I asked him if there were any interesting temples in the vicinity which we could go to. He immediately mentioned Attukal Bhagvathy. Actually I had no idea of who she was and did not connect her with the Pongala festival of which I had heard much. We reached there at twilight. As soon as I entered the precincts I felt her magic overpower me. It was time for her evening arati and without realizing her grace we were lead straight to the front and given a special place right in front of her. The door closed and opened again in a blaze of light and beauty which made me gasp in delight. There stood the divine mother bathed in light with many lights being waved before her, ready to grant the wishes of her devotees. It was an indescribable scene and we were overwhelmed with a sense of awe and wonder. It was only later that I was told by a friend that to get a front place during the evening arati is indeed a special honour which only she can give! People are said to queue for miles just to get a glimpse of her even at ordinary times and to have the privilege of standing right in front of her during the evening arati is indeed a miracle! We were poor ignorant people totally unaware of anything. She herself had lead us to her blessed feet and allowed us to have this blissful vision. It was truly a miracle and it certainly more than made up for having been denied entrance to the Sri Padmanabha Swami temple. When we came out I saw the posters advertising the next Pongala festival, announcing the date and other details. It was only then that I realized the extent of her grace for I had not known anything concerning the temple and the whole trip had been arranged entirely by her! May her grace be showered on all those who happen to read this article.
Aum Aim Hreem Kleem
Small wonder then. that, Sri. Vidyadhiraja Chattambi Swamy, the well known saint of Kerala, found this temple premises ideal for his meditations. There are so many stories which prove the greatness of the Goddess and which attract thousands of devotees to the temple.