Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated on a grand scale in Malaysia, mostly by the Tamil community, and is observed in other countries where there is a significant presence of Tamil community such as India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Mauritius. The festival attracts over a million people each year at Batu Caves (near Kuala Lumpur), the central point of Thaipusam festival here but it is also celebrated in other major cities like Penang and Ipoh, and Ipoh was the place where I witnessed Thaipusam for the first time up close and personal.
The meaning of Thaipusam
Thaipusam is typically celebrated on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February). The word Thaipusam is a combination of the month Thai and the star Pusam which is at its highest point during the festival. This festival celebrates Lord Murugan who is the son of the supreme deity Shiva and consort Parvati, commemorating the time when Parvati presented Murugan a spear. The spear or Vel is a symbol of Parvati’s shakti or power to defeat the army of Surapadman, head of the demons. Therefore, it is believed that devotees pray to Lord Murugan to defeat the “daily demons” afflicting their lives, for example, illnesses, career blocks or infertility, and in return, devotees would take a vow to dedicate a kavadi to Him.
Kavadi means “sacrifice at every step” and bearing a kavadi is an act of devotion and humility. Kavadi can be in various forms – the simplest is devotees carrying a pot of milk (pal kudam) or couples who have been blessed with children over the past year will carry their babies in saffron slings suspended from sugarcane stalks. The more extreme acts of devotion, but nonetheless common are devotees piercing their backs, cheeks and tongues with hooks and spears.
Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approximately 48 days before Thaipusam.
The Preparations: Eve of Thaipusam
As early as 8am, Ram and I took the bus from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, and upon our arrival in Ipoh, we were whisked off by our friends to Little India for brunch and some shopping. Little India is an area of pre-war shop houses (now very much sought-after as heritage buildings) selling Indian food, textiles, clothing and provisions. We had a vegetarian meal and some Indian sweets for dessert, and later Ram shopped for some items for his kavadi. While we were milling around the shops, I could hear devotional music being played from loud speakers. Shopkeepers set up makeshift stalls outside their shops and restaurants to sell additional food, drinks, milk pots, camphor, for the festival. I was beginning to feel excited about the festival, not knowing what to expect, but trusted my friends that I would be in for an interesting treat for the next two days 🙂
After shopping, we went to our friend’s house to start preparing for Ram’s kavadi. His kavadi consisted of 212 mini milk pots to be pierced on his upper arms and a 3 feet long metal spear to be pierced through his cheeks. We helped to fill vibhuti (sacred ash) in the mini milk pots, and covered the rim of the pots with small pieces of red cloths secured tightly with rubber bands. Tiny hooks would then be inserted into the mini milk pots for piercing but we did that only the next day in the afternoon as Ram would only carry the kavadi at night.
Later in the evening, we went to Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Buntong. On the way, we stopped by at a Lord Ganesha shrine where my friends prayed for blessings. Ganesha is generally regarded as the remover of obstacles, and as the god of beginnings, he is revered at the start of rituals and ceremonies. Since my friends were going to carry their kavadi the next day, it was apt that they stopped at this shrine to ask for and receive Ganesha’s blessings for the big day.
As we entered Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, devotees started their pilgrimage route on foot to Kallumalai Sri Subramaniar Temple, a journey of 15km to the main temple set amidst limestone caves – some carried pal kudam while others carried kavadi made of steel frame balanced on their shoulders, held up and supported through metal spikes pierced through their skin. The big kavadi is typically decorated with flowers, peacock feathers (the vehicle of Lord Murugan), statue or image of the deity, and amongst other things.
As I have had travelled to India numerous times before, I knew that this festival would be a feast for the eyes. On the outside, the temple is built in South Indian style of Dravidian architecture of tiered towers with sculptures of Hindu gods. It’s more colourful inside with sculptures of Hindu deities plus devotees dressed up for this special occasion – women in brightly coloured, glittering sarees and Punjabi suits, and men wore the vibrant yellow and orange veshti.
Adding to the visual feast, a drum brigade was playing inside the temple – it’s called urumi melam – and here’s an excerpt from an article by Eddin Khoo, founder-director of the cultural organization Pusaka, describing the pulsating, vibrating rhythms of the urumi drums…
The drummers move in a circle. The beating is loud and so clear that the crowd can feel the vibrations in their bodies…The musical setting gains intensity, the singing steadily moves towards a crescendo. Inside the temple, the religious ritual escalates with the intense, concentrated rhythmic dynamism “to call the deity”.
It was getting late at night and my friends had to get a good night’s rest for the next day. They prayed once again for their pilgrimage and those who were going to carry the kavadi in the morning received a yellow cloth from the priest who tied it on their wrists – that blessed yellow cloth is said to ward off evil forces from the kavadi-bearers for their journey – and I wished them all the best.
Hynoptic spectacle: Thaipusam Morning
I woke up as early as 6am so that I could be at a little shrine to witness the rituals prior to my friends carrying the kavadi. They were already at this small temple by 7am and preparations were underway within the next hour.
The kavadi-bearers have to go through a purification bath first and they smeared vibhuti on their foreheads, arms and chest. After that, they knelt before their trays of offerings and prayed to the deity for focus and strength. By this time, the urumi melam drum brigade had already been playing but the performance on the urumi started to change – it became more intense and as the rhythms moved to a crescendo, the kavadi-bearers entered into a trance. When the mystic subconscious state of trance takes over, the devotees go through the piercings which they have vowed for i.e. their kavadi, their burden and penance.
As part of their kavadi, my friends also pierced a small spear through their tongues and cheeks. It is believed that piercing through the tongue or cheeks prevents the devotee from speaking, thus he is able to focus his attention and devotion to Lord Murugan. Interestingly, there was no pain or blood shed throughout this process.
Once the piercings were completed and kavadi was fitted, the kavadi-bearers with their families and friends walked on foot from the shrine to Kallumalai Temple. We walked through the streets of Ipoh accompanied by the urumi melam drum brigade. As we were closer to the Kallumalai Temple, there were more groups of other devotees converged on this pilgrimage route with their drum brigades and beautifully decorated kavadi.
As we reached closer to the temple, I felt that the kavadi-bearers were moving faster – it’s like they were feeling the “pull” or “urgency” to enter the temple. And once we got inside the courtyard of the temple, there were more people, thunderous sounds of drums and singing filled the air, and devotees joined the incessant drumming with shouts of “Vel, vel! Vel, vel!”
We circled around the temple and then came to the centre where the kavadi and piercings would be removed. Upon the removal of the kavadi, some devotees collapsed or staggered due to the physical and mental exhaustion but I’m sure it was an overpowering joy and a sense of accomplishment for fulfilling their vows. The devotees then walked inside temple with a brass pot of milk to present at the image of Lord Murugan, and in turn, to receive his blessings too.
Men of Steel: Thaipusam Night
I had always thought Thaipusam festivities were only during the day until my friends mentioned that the best time was at night. Thaipusam at night was certainly another kind of spectacle altogether. I saw devotees carried huge kavadi lit with bright neon lights powered by generators transported in trucks.
Well, my friends were not carrying neon-power generated kavadi but theirs were equally “powerful” nevertheless…especially for me as an outsider 🙂 One had hooks inserted into his back and pulled by a friend walking behind; another had hundreds of mini milk pots pierced on his upper arms and a 10 feet metal spear or vel pierced through his cheeks; and the last one, my friend Ram, had the same but a shorter vel of 3 feet long.
These Men of Steel went through the same rituals which I had witnessed earlier in the day with the other group of kavadi-bearers: purification bath, prayers and offerings, a short trance and piercings. Once all kavadi were fitted, we set on foot again to Kallumalai Temple.
I was in awe of the many neon-power generated kavadi on the road – some were almost the size of a chariot – and devotees would pull their kavadi while walking to the temple. Talk about herculean strength! The crowd swelled at night, probably hundreds and thousands of devotees and curious on-lookers concentrated near the vicinity of the temple – watching the kavadi-bearers walked by in a procession, dancing wildly to the piercing loud tunes of the urumi melam drums, walking up to kavadi-bearers to request for blessings, and shouting “Vel, vel! Vel, vel!”. In addition, stalls nearby were blasting out loud music (some devotional and some not), the temple was making all kinds of announcements in Tamil language, and huge spotlights shining on to devotees as we entered the temple. It was almost the same scene in the morning except it was 1000 times more people and 1000 times louder at night!
Because we were stuck in between those power generated kavadi which moved slower due to its sheer size and the trucks, it took a longer time for us to walk to Kallumalai Temple. By the time we finally entered the temple courtyard, it was a massive human traffic jam I have ever encountered in my life. At one point, we were at the centre and as my friends were getting their kavadi and piercings removed; I was almost crushed by people around me. I have read news about people getting crushed and died in stampede in festivals in India due to mad frenzy crowd – well, that thought did cross my mind and I was praying so hard, wishing that would not happen to us that night!
It was almost 2am and it was over. Ram and his friends presented their pots of milk to the image of Lord Murugan and received blessings. I asked Ram how did he feel – he said it was like a wedding – all the hard work and efforts went into the wedding preparations, the events leading up to it and then on the wedding day, the whole she-bang was done very quickly and next thing you knew it was over 🙂
He then asked me how did I feel about Thaipusam? Well, honestly speaking, I felt very lucky. As a non-Hindu and a Malaysian-Chinese, I have had been ignorant about Thaipusam especially the meaning of the festival, why devotees chose to carry a kavadi and what kavadi meant. Therefore I was very lucky to be invited to see up close and personal the preps, rituals, the many types of kavadi (both simple and extreme acts of devotion) and to partake in the procession walk to the temple. But, most importantly, what made the entire experience memorable for me is that I was warmly welcomed by people who took me in as part of their family and friend network, and that is something which I am thankful and grateful for.