Header images courtesy of Penang Global Tourism
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam is celebrated by India’s Tamil community and its diaspora, paying homage to the Hindu god Lord Murugan (also known as Subramaniam). It is also a day of prayers and penance, fulfilling vows to Murugan for wishes granted. A highlight of this spiritual event is a body-piercing ritual serving as penance for one’s weaknesses as a human being. One of the largest and most famous commemorations of Thaipusam in the world is held in Malaysia, where the religious festival attracts hundreds of thousands of worshippers and visitors.
Thaipusam is named after the Tamil month of Thai (தை), while “pusam” means “when the star is at its brightest.” Thai is the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, between mid-January and mid-February, coinciding with the full moon. The occasion commemorates the event when Parvati Devi, the goddess of love and fertility, gave her son, Murugan, a vel (வேல்; spear) to slay demons. Temples dedicated to Murugan are usually situated on hilltops as Lord Siva had ordered him to be located atop Mount Palani in south India.
Therefore, devotees are required to hike up to the temples carrying the kavadi (காவடி) and offerings to Lord Murugan. In Kuala Lumpur, devotees climb a flight of 272 colourful steps at Batu Caves, a limestone cave where the temple of Lord Murugan is located. Hindus regard Murugan as representing virtue, youth, and power. Worshippers who have made vows and pledges to this Hindu god express their gratitude by undergoing self-mortification and repentance on Thaipusam, performing acts of self-sacrifice and piercing their skin with silver skewers symbolising the vel or with hooks from which they hang fruits such as limes. Some devotees carry the kavadi in the belief that their burdens in life will be alleviated through this form of atonement.
Festivities take place over three consecutive days, but preparations start way before the event, where a cleansing process of the body and mind begins through prayers, fasting, and abstinence. Kavadi-carrying is regarded as a sacred ceremonial exercise that can only be executed with a mind and body freed from earthly pleasures.
The preparatory process can be over a period of 48 days, 30 days, nine days, or three days. In the days leading up to the festival, devotees observe strict fasting or eat a simple vegetarian meal or just some fruit and milk once a day. They sleep on the floor, rise at dawn for meditation, chants, and undertake a cleansing bath. On the eve of the festival, the devotees must observe a 24-hour fast.
Some may also observe a vow of silence. On Thaipusam, the procession with Murugan’s chariot proceeds from one temple to the main temple. Clad in yellow and saffron (Murugan’s colours) robes with clean-shaven heads (symbolising humility and repentance), devotees walk barefoot to a temple of Murugan carrying the kavadi or milk pots. On reaching the end of the procession, the kavadi is laid down and the hooks which have been attached to the skin of the devotee’s body are removed while a priest chants during an elaborate ceremony filled with drumming and music. The wounds are treated with hot ash believed to have curative powers.
Kavadi: Penitents carry the kavadi in fulfilment of vows to Lord Murugan. A kavadi consists of a short wooden pole topped with a wooden arch, decorated with peacock feathers (Murugan’s mascot), margosa leaves, and other materials. The simplest kind of kavadi comprises a wooden stick with two baskets or pots hung at each end, slung across the shoulder. The larger and most expensive kavadis feature an ornate chariot structure decorated with yellow and orange flowers, peacock feathers, and a string of bells.
It is believed that the kavadi represents a mountain with Murugan at its peak. Kavadis can be as large as three to four metres in height and weigh more than 30 kilogrammes. Kavadi bearers whose skins on their bodies have been pierced are said to feel no pain nor bleed. While male devotees carry the kavadi, female devotees often carry milk pots. Both genders, however, can subject themselves to body piercings should they wish.
Coconuts: Another spectacle witnessed during Thaipusam is the breaking of coconuts during the chariot procession and at the temple grounds. This is an act of purification and humility upon attaining wisdom. In Malaysia, even non-Hindu devotees participate in this ritual as thanksgiving for the fulfilment of their prayers to Lord Murugan.
Milk pot (paal kudam): Most women devotees carry a pot of milk symbolising fertility and abundance, which is poured over the statue of Lord Murugan at the end of the procession. It is believed that when devotees pour milk onto a deity, it becomes a blessed sacrament that turns into an elixir.
Piercing: Tongue and cheek piercings symbolise the sacrifice of giving up speech (to fully focus on the deity).
Shaving of heads: Head shaving symbolically removes ego, vanity and self-centeredness.