Thaipusam is one of the main Hindu celebrations in Malaysia and is the biggest festival in the world dedicated to the Hindu God Murugan. A day of prayers and penance, Thaipusam is also a festival of thanksgiving to Murugan for vows fulfilled.
Origin of Thaipusam
Thaipusam is celebrated during a full moon in the Tamil month of “Thai” (the 10th month in the Tamil calendar, coinciding with January or February). “Pusam” means “when the star is at its brightest”.
Thaipusam festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati Devi gave her son Murugan (also known as Subramaniam) a spear or Vel, so he could vanquish a demon.
Besides representing virtue, youth and power, Hindus also believe Murugan is the universal dispenser of favours. Some who have made vows and pledges to Murugan show their gratitude by undergoing self-mortification on Thaipusam day. They often perform acts of self-sacrifice, piercing their skin with silver skewers that symbolise the Vel or with hooks from which they hang fruits or bowls of milk.
How It Is Celebrated
Thaipusam festivities take place over three days.
48 Days Prior
Devotees exercise abstinence leading up to the festival, forgoing any manner of gluttony, luxury and desire. They observe complete fasting or eat a simple vegetarian meal or some fruit and milk once a day. They observe strict celibacy and refrain from alcohol, smoking, vulgarity and even entertainment. They sleep on the floor, wake before sunrise for meditation and chants and take a customary cleansing bath.
On The Eve
After completing the 48 days of abstinence, the devotees must observe a 24-hour fast. Some may also observe a vow of silence.
The procession with Murugan’s chariot goes from one temple to another main temple. Clad in yellow and saffron (Murugan’s colours) with clean-shaven heads (symbol of humility and atonement), devotees walk barefoot to a temple of Murugan carrying the kavadi or milk pots. On reaching the end of the route, 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 amid an elaborate ceremony with drumming and music. The wounds are treated with hot ash.
The chariot returns to the temple.
The Symbols of Holiness
All Murugan temples are situated on top of a hill as Siva ordered him to be situated atop Mount Palani in south India. Following this, devotees are required to hike up to the temples carrying the kavadi and offerings to Murugan.
Kavadi derives from the words “kaavu” and “tadi” which means a pole to carry things. It is believed that the burden in the life of a devotee who carries a kavadi is lessened by Murugan. A kavadi consists of a short wooden pole topped with a wooden arch, decorated with peacock feathers (Murugan’s mascot is the peacock), margosa leaves and other materials.
Milk Pot (Paal Kudam)
Most women devotees carry a pot of milk which is poured over the statue of Murugan at the end of the procession. It is believed that when devotees pour milk onto a deity, elixir is extracted from it.
Tongue and cheek piercing symbolise the sacrifice of giving up speech and talking (to fully focus on the deity).
Shaving of Heads
This is to remove ego and vanity.
Another spectacle that you will witness during the Thaipusam celebration is the breaking of coconuts. This is an act of purification and humility upon attaining wisdom. In Malaysia, even non-Hindu devotees are sometimes seen breaking coconuts to fulfil their vows.
Where To Celebrate in Malaysia
The night before Thaipusam, devotees gather at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple along Jalan Tun HS Lee (Chinatown/Petaling Street area). From there, they leave around midnight on a 15-km (8-hour) walk to Batu Caves, arriving the next morning. The long trip culminates in the flight of 272 steps to the cave entrance.
On Thaipusam day, various types of colourful kavadis would be carried up 248 steps to reach the Arulmigu Balathandayuthabani Temple or the Penang Waterfall Hilltop Temple at Jalan Kebun Bunga. The main road that leads to the hilltop will be decorated with cultural motifs called kolam.
The chariot procession starts from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Jalan Sungai Pari to the Sri Subramaniar Temple in Gunong Cheroh, Ipoh, Perak.
Food For Thought
Devotees who carry kavadi for Thaipusam are recommended to fast from sunrise to sunset, or observe vegetarianism. Breaking of fast with a satvic meal involves eating fruit and nuts in the morning and having a light meal of idli and thosai at sunset. This is part of the cleansing process to keep the body light for the procession and arduous climb ahead. Devoid of stimulants, such as caffeine and chocolate, this diet is believed to lead to clarity of mind and physical health.
Good To Know
• On top of fasting, devotees sleep on the floor without pillows throughout the 48 days before Thaipusam.
• The task of carrying a kavadi is considered very sacred and it is believed that this can only be done when one’s mind and body are free from earthly pleasures. Kavadi bearers who have been pierced are said to feel no pain nor bleed.
• While male devotees carry kavadi, female devotees often carry milk pots. Both genders however, can subject themselves to body piercings should they wish.
Text by Angela Goh