Thaipusam is celebrated every year by the Hindu Tamil community on the full month in the Thai month (February) of the Hindu lunar calendar. As Malaysia has a sizeable Hindu Tamil population, the festival is celebrated on a large scale among the Tamil community, the main location of which culminates in Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, and in Balathanda-yuthapani temple which is located on a hill in Penang.
The word Thaipusam refers to the Pusam star which is believed to be at its highest point in the Thai month. In the spirit of the Malaysian unity and also their frequently crossed religious cultures, Thaipusam is also celebrated by a growing number of ethnic Chinese in the country as well as those of the Sikh faith.
The celebration starts as early as 1am on the day of the festival. In Kuala Lumpur, devotees would start to gather at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Bandar Road to witness the ceremonial bath of Lord Muruga. The deity would be adorned with colorful flowers, precious stones and elaborate ornaments before being placed on a ceremonial silver chariot which would be drawn by two oxen. The entire chariot weighs about 5 tonnes in total. A pilgrimage would then proceed on foot from the Sri Maha Mariamman temple on a 15km journey to the shrine at the Batu Caves Hindu temple. The final journey culminates in a 272-step ascent to the temple which is in the caves. The journey would start at 4am and last for about 8 hours to Batu Caves. Hundreds of devotees will accompany the chariot on the long journey, many carrying kavadi as self-inflicted penance.
Similarly in Penang, a grand procession starts from Little India and goes on a 18km journey to Nattukottai Chettiar Thandayuthapani Kovil and Waterfall temple (Balathanda-yuthapani) in Jalan Air Terjun Waterfall Road) during Thaipusam Penang.
There are a few legends associated with how the celebration of Thaipusam came about. In one of the legends, the Great Saint Agasthya had instructed his student Idumban to uproot two hills from the earth which belonged to Lord Murugan and to bring the hills back to the Great Saint. When Lord Murugan heard about this, he wanted to test Idumban’s loyalty and devotion to his master. He reduced his size to that of a small child and stood on top one of the hills. To Idumban’s great surprise, he was unable to uproot any of the hills and when he checked, he saw a small child standing haughtily on the top of the hill. Idumban humbly requested for the child to step down from the hill, but when the child refused, Idumban flew into a great rage and tried to attack the child. This failed, for the child was Lord Murugan in disguise, and Idumban found himself on a heap on the ground like an injured little bird. Lord Murugan then reverted back into his original form and stood before Idumban and told him that he was pleased with Idumban’s show of faith, loyalty and devotion to his master. Lord Murugan also bestowed Idumban the honour of being his guardian and made a declaration that from then on, whoever who brought forth kavadis to him would receive his blessings. The kavadis that you see at Thaipusam festivals today symbolizes the hills of burden that Idumban had borne. This is why most temples chosen for the festival are usually on top of hills.
There were other legends surrounding the origin of Thaipusam. In another version, a demon by the name of Tharakasuran was troubling the Rishis and the Saints. Lord Murugan was called forth by his parents Lord Shiva and Parvati and was instructed to destroy the demon. He was given 12 weapons, the twelfth being a ‘vel’, a spear like weapon with an arrowhead tip, given to him by his mother Parvati. Lord Murugan destroyed Tharakasuran on the Pusam Nakshatra day in the Thai month of the Tamil calendar. In yet another version of how Thaipusam came about, on that legendary day, Shiva and Parvati were engaged in a beautiful dance as the other gods watched.
Thaipusam is also believed to originate from a war between the celestial beings Devas and Asuras, the evil forces. This war torn the world apart, and the Devas paid homage to Lord Shiva, asking for His protection. Lord Shiva agreed to help them, and He opened the central eye on His forehead, radiating six sparks of fire, which convered into his son, the Lord Murugan. Armed with a golden spear, called the Nyanya Vel, Lord Murugan went to battle, and after a long and fierce battle, Lord Murugan slain Soorapadme in one stroke. One portion of the slain Soorapadme was converted into a peacock as the Lord Murugan’s vehicle and the other portion into a rooster adorning his banner. This is why the vel (spear) and peacock feathers are frequently incorporated into the festivities of Thaipusam.
Similar themes run through all the legends. They involve Lord Murugan eradicating negative and evil forces that eradicate us and it is this theme that runs through the entire Thaipusam festival. On this day, devotees make offerings to Lord Murugan to thank him for banishing evil forces from their lives, and the kavadi or burden that the devotee bears for Lord Murugan has benefits that are a million fold greater than the little pain that the devotee would inflict upon him or herself.
The kavadi concept comes in many forms. Generally, devotees take up a vow to offer the Lord a kavadi as a tiding over a great calamity or as an oath to ask for help from the Lord Murugan. For example, a parent whose son is sick would pray for his son’s recovery in return for which the devotee would dedicate a kavadi to the lord.
A kavadi has many shapes and sizes. The most spectacular forms of kavadi are the vel kavadis where the structures are in the shapes of metal frames adorned with colourful decorations, peacock feathers, flowers and golden chains. Others are much simpler in structure, in the form of a wooden stick with two baskets at the end. The simplest form of a kavadi would be to carry a jug of milk. Brass bells are most often adorned on the kavadi, ringing as the kavadi bearer walks, announcing his presence.
These kavadi structures are often attached to the kavadi bearers’ bodies. The most memorable and focal point of the festival would be to witness these kavadi bearers and the self-torture they inflict upon themselves as an act of devotion towards Lord Murugan. Some pierce a sharp spear through their tongue, and others through their cheeks. Piercing the vel through the tongue is said to prevent free speech so that the devotee can focus his entire concentration on the Lord Murugan. Some pierce steel hooks into flesh off of their backs. Some of these hooks are connected to a person pulling a rope, or connected to small bells and fruits, or limes in particular. A single lime may not weigh much, but when the hooks are connected to 50 limes down a devotee’s back, the feat involved a great wealth of devotion and tolerance. We call it self-torture but the kavadi-bearer is often in a state of trance and claims to feel no pain. A first time kavadi bearer however, may be a little apprehensive when the vel hooks are pierced through the skin and the metal straps of the kavadi structures are tightened. This usually goes away once the priest arrives to give a blessing, sometimes putting the kavadi bearer into a trance, allowing the family members and friends to continue on with the piercing.
For the others, there are often no signs of blood or pain on the bearers’ faces or signs of any scarring after the hooks have been taken out. They are said to be in the highest form of religious fervor and sometimes are even possessed by Lord Muruga himself. These kavadi bearers are also often accompanied by friends and family for support and in the long and tortuous journey up to the temple, it is the support by fellow devotees and surrounding friends and family that the kavadi bearer relies on to keep going. The kavadis may seem weightless like feathers as the kavadi bearers dance and swing all the way to the temple. Yet, the journey is not easy and the structures weigh as much as 70kg, sometimes more. As the procession nears the temple, the sun would have risen by this time and the large crowds would have added to the sweltering heat that the kavadi bearers have to tolerate as well. The bearers are usually barefoot and would have to walk on the burning hot tarmac once the sun rises. The hardest part of the journey is often not the journey on the road but once they reach the foot of the hill as 272 steps stand between them and the temple. The encouragement of family members and other devotees are crucial to climb up all 272 steps.
The procession is not a quiet affair, and the stream of devotees is always accompanied by a band of percussionists and a leader singing religious songs, called the urumee. The tasks of these musicians are to encourage and give support to the kavadi bearers to continue in their journey of faith. The music is encouraging, as those carrying the vel kavadi are more prone to fatigue, and they frequently have to stop throughout the journey to rest.
The kavadi bearer usually observes strict customs and “regulations” prior to carrying the kavadi on the day of the festival. Kavadi bearers usually observe strict celibacy from sex, drugs and alcohol. They will also meditate and pray and practice vegetarianism before the start of the festival. These acts of devotion and holiness are also observed by other devotees, not just the kavadi bearers. The bearers are also frequently dressed in a saffron-colored cloth, a conical scarlet cap and a cane which is silver capped at both ends. As mentioned, the devotees also frequently take part in the procession on barefoot. It is also not unusual to see devotees of other faiths and religion take part in this unique festival. Among the ethnic Chinese community, especially the Buddhists who share many of the same beliefs as Hindus, it is not unusual to see Chinese people among the devotees with a jug of milk atop their heads as they march along with the procession to the temple. The grand affair will also be attended by hundreds of tourists and photographers as they scramble to get the spot that will attain the best view of the procession. This spirit of kindred unity and combined faith is even more prominent in the state of Penang, where the population is predominantly Chinese. The lines between faiths blur as the festival is more about upholding and showing one’s faith, courage and devotion to his or her God regardless of religion.
There are other ways for devotees to fulfill their religious obligations other than carrying kavadis. Some provide support for the kavadi bearers and massage their sore arms and legs or provide stools for the bearers to sit whenever they stop to rest. Some devotees shave their head and facial hair while some prepare food so that the other devotees would not have to go hungry. In fact, on Thaipusam there will usually be a congregation of Indian barbers at the foot of the hill with thousands of eager customers, each waiting to shave his or her hair. Each devotee has his or her own reasons for doing penance. As mentioned earlier, some seek to overcome bad luck or karma, others to honour a vow made, and some as penance for their sins. It is believed that once a vow has been fulfilled and if the devotee does not carry a kavadi as promised, he or she will receive misfortune in return.
The atmosphere on the day of Thaipusam is electric and has a festive air filled with the beating of drums, chanting, and singing. The crowd will be massive, almost a million strong, full of eager devotees and tourists alike to witness the arrival of the procession and the deity and to participate in the festivities. A path laden with smashed coconuts would greet the chariot the entire journey, believed to signify the triumph of good over evil. Once ascended up the steep stairs of the cave and into the shrine, the devotees are blessed by the Hindu priests and the hooks and spears can then be removed. The vow is finally said to be fulfilled.