Dianne Jenett carefully holds the steel plate, which contains upturned lemon rinds being used as an oil lamp. She places them one by one on a large circular stand, just outside the entrance of the Attukal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram.
Her concentration is intense.
So, she is oblivious to the curious stares and tender smiles that she gets from women at the temple. Later, Jenett says, “I love these women. They are always so welcoming. Most of them want to take selfies with me. There is nothing that I enjoy more than being in the middle of a queue with them to see the Devi.”
Jenett stands out because she is a foreigner, who is wearing a sari. And within the temple precincts, nearly everyone—the administrators, security men, priests and female helpers—know her. That’s because she has been coming annually to the temple for the past 24 years.
It all began in 1993, when the Californian woman had come to Thiruvananthapuram. Somebody had told her about a festival going on at the temple. “When I first came, there were long queues of women and I wanted to know what was happening,” says Jenett, who has retired as a professor of women’s spirituality from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Palo Alto, California. “I was interested in rituals that had female deities and were women-centred.”
During the course of one of her visits, Jenett became friends with academic Dr M S Hema. And it was with Hema’s help that Jenett was able to submit a doctoral dissertation on the temple, at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Since then, she has been giving presentations at academic conferences and at the American Academy of Religion. “People were fascinated when I told them during the annual Pongala festival, which was held on March 11, the women made Pongala (a dish made with rice, ghee, coconut and jaggery) in small pots out in the open. And it is offered to the Goddess to please her,” she says. “They told me that they would never look at cooking in the same way.”
And it was only Jenett who ensured an international spotlight on the event. She submitted a successful application to the Guinness Book Of World Records in 1997 stating that the annual Pongala festival has the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity. In fact, the number of women participants has reached over 30 lakh.
A firm devotee of goddess Bhadrakali, she says, “The goddess is fierce and tender, a mother as well as a warrior. She provides emotional solace.”
Some years ago, when her four-month-old grandson, Simon fell ill, and was hovering between life and death, at a hospital in California, Jenett prayed fervently to Devi. “I felt her presence very strongly,” she says. And in the end, Simon survived.