Attendance at the festival has grown year after year (Photos: Haris Kuttipuram)
By John Mary
India's southern state of Kerala may have hosted the largest gathering of women ever seen on the planet.
Clad in traditional Kerala saris and bearing offerings of food, more than two million women - perhaps more - thronged the state capital Trivandrum on Sunday.
The women braved searing heat to offer a special meal at the Attukal temple to Hindu goddess Bhagavathy - one incarnation of the potent goddesses Kali and Saraswati.
Women howled shrilly, as is the custom at the culmination of this 10-day annual event, and they joined the chief priest in offering their earthenware pots overflowing with rice and jaggery - an unrefined sugar - to the presiding goddess.
They were seeking her blessing for the health and prosperity of their families - and the special meal, known as the pongala, was later distributed among family and friends back at home.
Women howl shrilly as they make their offering
This is a unique festival the size of which is unmatched - the congregation at Attukal temple has grown exponentially over the years.
Such festivities used to be modest affairs and the annual gathering was confined to the temple premises until about 25 years ago.
But once families associated with the temple formed a trust, the festival became more organised, there was more publicity and it attracted women from across the state and even foreign countries.
Guinness Worlds Records certified the crowd strength was 1.5 million when it was assessed for the first time in 1997.
Last year turnout was 2.5 million and this year, according to festival organisers, it was estimated to be 3 million.
Attukal Bhagavathy Temple Trust secretary KP Ramachandran Nair says that from next year an agency associated with the National Geographic channel will conduct aerial surveys for a more scientific headcount.
It is an elaborate logistical feat: almost 3,000 police, 600 of them women, were on duty around the clock. Two hundred priests positioned themselves at different points to sprinkle holy water on the pongala. Fifty portable toilets were also provided.
At Sunday's mass offering, the ceremonial cooking began at 1015 local time (0445 GMT). The chief priest lit up the main hearth in front of the temple.
Smoke billowed from hundreds of thousands of temporary hearths and hung above the city.
Tearful women swayed to the chanting of mantras, invoking the blessing of the goddess until next year's festival.
Popular Malayalam television actress Chippi was also present: "I've lost count of the number of times I've participated in the pongala festival.
"And why I do it is because I am sure Attukalamma [the mother goddess] will take care of me and family till I come back next year."
Not everyone manages to make their offering close to the temple: many had to set up hearth wherever they could.
People who live near the temple host dozens of women to cook the pongala. One retired professor of English, MS Hema, hosted more than 100 friends and relatives at her home.
The size of the women's festival is unmatched
Among her guests was Dianne Jennet, who has been coming every year since 1997 from San Francisco. The collective spirituality she observed in female devotees at Attukal became the subject of of her PhD dissertation back in the United States.
"It's difficult to explain. I just develop this desire to make the journey every year. Pongala is all about community, devotion and equality.
"There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world. It is amazing the way a whole city makes arrangements for women to make this offering. Nobody could imagine shutting down San Francisco for a day, blocking the vehicles for a women's gathering," she said.
The legend goes that Bhagavathy once visited the spot where the temple stands today on the banks of the Killiyar river.
The goddess, in the guise of a girl, sought the help of the head of a local family to cross the river. He helped her - but she vanished soon after.
In the ancient religious texts, Bhagavathy is said to annihilate evil and protects the good in this world - she grants every wish of her devotees. This is also the fervent hope of the women who come year on year.
At the end of the ceremony a small plane hovered above the masses showering flowers.
It was the end to a tiring but spiritually nourishing session. Devotees picked up their belongings and boarded buses and trains to head home.