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Published: March 4th 2007
If they could just wait another hour...
Did that make you curious? I didnt know what else to call it but we spent all day at the biggest gathering of women in the world - it's in the Guiness book of records and everything!
We read about it last week in the paper. Bob being a festival photographer was determined to go and I, being a woman, couldnt possibly miss out on something that sounded so crazy - 2 million women (as it turned out) would descend on the town of Trivandrum and cook offerings to a mythical deity. 2 million women! can you imagine? well neither could we so we decided to try and get the train down the day before. We thought it would be pretty packed but when we got to the platform it seemd rather fine. There were a lot of women waiting for the train, but it didnt seem crazy.
We sat on a bench chatted with what common body language we could muster with a couple of ladies nearby, roasted in the sun and generally relaxed for an hour or so until a train pulled in. Then all hell broke loose.
We thought we were on the quieter end of the
platform but out of nowhere, there were people stuffing themselves onto the train in such determination that they were falling out the doors, and we were among them - bob had managed to get his feet actually onto the train but was still hanging on for dear life, and I, despite being separated from him by about 5 bodies, was hanging out the door with my foothold being the top step. My hands were already slipping on the window bars I was clinging to, and there were two men clinging to god knows what behind me - I shouted to bob that I really didnt fancy risking my life in this manner for over an hour on a moving train, and he was in absolute agreement, but even getting off was a nightmare and we squeezed ourselves out the door just before the train started to pull away.
We wandered down the platform in bewilderment, trains pull off really slowly, (presumably to give people time to change their minds about clinging on so ridiculously) - people we'd seen on the platform were now waving at us from the carriages, everyone seemed really happy despite the mad push to board.
another half an hour or so of pondering what to do next, we thought we'd just ask how many more trains were going to Trivandrum and were told that the one that had just pulled in at the next platform would be going - we looked, and it was practically empty (comparitively). Bob's excitement at the possibility that we still might make it after all, pulled me across the railway tracks and up into the carriage - no walking the proper way round for us! And after a sticky moment where an official told bob to get off because it was the ladies only carriage (oops) we found ourselves a new one, held onto the luggage racks to steady ourselves and settled into the next hours edition of "stare at the wierd looking outsiders".
And almost before we knew it we were there, in the busiest, bustliest small town around. There were bananas everywhere, and strange statues, but most of all there were rows and rows of bricks, set up in groups of three, forming triangles, and there were piles of earthen cooking pots as far as the eye could see.
We found ourselves a hotel, one of the last
Sometimes the queuing was less than comfortable!
rooms available I think, and a few kilometres away from the main temple, but there were still rows of cooking pots outside it. Apparently the lines of cooking apparatus stretched for a 10 kilometre diameter!
We woke up bright and early in the morning and the tv was already showing live coverage of thousands of women queuing to get their blessings. It was amazing - as soon as we left the hotel we were in the throng of it - women everywhere, lined up with their pots, preparing the pongala offering of bananas, palm sugar, coconut, all smiling and clearly enjoying this women's only day. So many women smiled at me, I really felt there was a lovely cameraderie about the absense of men, it felt really liberating and peaceful. Men arent allowed anywhere near anything unless they have a very special reason, so when bob was stopped from going down a road about 3 km away from the event, I had images of being made to cover it on his behalf. Luckily though, bob told them he was a freelance journalist and he was waved through - He said at the end of the day that he'd felt incredibly
priviledged in that respect - it's wierd cos I hadnt even considered that point of view, that he was really lucky to get to see what he saw, I was just enjoying the happiness of so many ladies preparing food! One group of girls adopted me for a while on their way to the temple, gave me a handful of flowers to carry and kept checking that I was following them though they were a little concerned that I wouldnt be able to go into the temple as I didnt have a sari on. At this stage I wasnt sure whether I would take part or not, I really wanted to but had no idea how to or where to set up, but soon enough we were in the main area, photographing the queues of women in the heat and that became my mission for the day. Children were dressed up with ornate flowers in their hair and fancy dresses and everyone carried trays with bananas (now I understand why there were so many lining the streets the night before) insense, burning oil, rice and palm leaves for blessing. We were told that at 10.30 the main event would begin,
and we were in exactly the right place. Our foreign journalist status had got us into the main area and we found ourselves very near the photopit. The national radio station All India Radio asked to interview us, and broadcast the interview yesterday afternoon - this seemed like a novelty at the time, but as the day went on, we were interviewed, filmed and photograped by countless newspapers and tv channels, and we will have been quoted as saying the same things on all of them I'm sure! The press seemed interested in us for a combination of reasons, we're foriegn, we've got professional cameras on us, and we're at a womens' festival - everyone wanted to know how we knew about it and who we were working for! They also wanted to know if I would be coming back next year to take part.
At this point, I started to experience a little of bob's world. All the journalists started to crowd round the area where the first fire would be lit. At 10.30, the priest came out, sprinkled holy water on everyone and lit the first flame. Again all hell broke loose for a few minutes as everyone
was so overexcited. Huge whoops and drum beats were broadcast over the loudspeakers as the whole town lit up their cooking pots - such overwhelming excitement - and the photographers were the most bonkers of them all, clamouring to get their shots, they almost overcrowded the main pot, leading the priests to panic. Bob of course had got himself the prime spot, right in front of the pots, and captured everything. There was also a really lovely man who was going out of his way to haul people out of the scrum to leave room for me to squeeze in.
What I found most incredible though was that out of the huge numbers of journalists, there was only one female photographer, and obviously that was me. There were a couple of female radio broadcasters but it was predominantly men. And in a festival which excludes men so much, it seems a bit bonkers that the priest who lights the first flame is a man, and that the throngs of people around the first pot are entirely men (with the 4 exceptions I've already mentioned) and in fact that all the blessings are from a man.
The festival is interesting because
This is the pot that all the journalists were clamouring for photos of!
it is open to all women, no matter what their religion, race or caste. It seems to be unique in the general acceptance of everyone for who they are because they are there to offer pongala and to enjoy the day.
After the first pot had been cooking for some time, I went to explore the area a bit more. All that smoke really stung my eyes but it made for some beautiful scenes!
One group of women beckoned me over, giggling. I wasnt sure if they wanted a photo taking or if they wanted me to eat their food, so we gestured for a bit, I took a few photos and they packaged a whole load of banana treats up in banana palm leaves and newspaper for me to take away as well. So I had watched it being prepared, cooked and I got to eat some too. It was really sweet and difficult to swallow without water to hand but the generosity of spirit was delicious!
We had to wait for ages to get back, we tried to avoid all the crowds by getting to the station before everything was fully over, but it didnt work -
All The pots
Well, not all of them, but a line of women cooking their offerings
it was utterly packed. So we spent our time taking more photos until there was a train available that we didnt have to hang off. It was a really long journey back and we were exhausted but the pongala spirit was still there as all the women shared more of their food with us, we shared our water and we all chatted and laughed. Well, I say that as though we understood each other really well, when really I think most of the younger women were just laughing at us, but it was all in good spirit and we didnt really mind. The only thing I was a bit sad about was that one older lady handed me a bottle of something milky looking - it tasted like Indonesian Jamu - herbal medicine - with ginger and things in it but they told me it was curd milk. In short it was quite unpleasant but I didnt know what to do with it, I didnt know if I was expected to keep the bottle or hand it back and when the younger girls gestured to me that it would make me sick as I shouldnt be drinking it, I got
Boy with something in his ear!
Hundreds of boys marched through at one point. For the last 10 days they'd been doing rituals leading up to this point, preparing themselves for the offering.
a bit worried. Without any language, I would have happily kept it if I'd thought that was what was expected, but I was so confused and the woman did the funny head wiggle that's so difficult to decipher so I gave it back. But then she didnt really talk to me for the rest of the journey. I really hope I didnt offend her. I caught her eye at one point later and we both smiled so maybe it was fine but I would much rather have been taken under her wing than laughed at by the younger mischeivous ones. Oh well, some things are just too hard to fathom!
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