Celebrated on a grand scale in Malaysia and other countries with sizeable Tamil speaking communities, Thaipusam showcases religious fervour. Above that, devotees elevate the concept of ‘mind-over-matter’ to lofty heights where pain and fear become meaningless in the face of devotion.
Words & Photography: Magda Biskup
The young Hindu man whose back was being pierced with large hooks seemed not to feel any pain. His face was like a mask. The only sign of his emotions were the drops of sweat pooling on his forehead. A skilful swami grabbed the skin on the man’s back and put another hook through it. The years of practice have taught him how to go around the veins, preventing bleeding and making the whole spectacle even more fascinating to watch. He then attached a long rope to each hook, which he put around the man’s waist. With a strong move he tugged the ropes to ensure the entire construction was strong enough. The skin on the man’s back immediately stretched. Moments later the devotee started his 5-km long journey to Nattukotai Chettiar temple. There were similar scenes happening all around me, and I watched them with bewilderment and fascination, moving from group to group and observing young men getting ready for their kavadi and the pilgrimage. I was in the middle of preparation for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Georgetown, Penang.
Origins of Thaipusam
The festival of Thaipusam commemorates Lord Muruga, a principal deity in the Hindu pantheon, slaying the asura (demon) Soorapadman. Hindu mythology chronicles the demon terrorising heaven and earth with his equally nasty brothers Simhamukha and Tarakasura. In fear, the gods begged Lord Shiva to put a stop to this reign of terror. Lord Shiva’s consort, Goddess Parvathy bestowed Muruga an all powerful lance (vel) and with it, Muruga defeated the demon, restoring peace and harmony to earth and heaven. Thaipusam, which falls in the Hindu month of Thai (mid January to mid February), is celebrated on the day the star Pusam (comprising three stars known as Theta-Cancri, Gamma-Cancri and Eta-Cancri in modern astronomy) presides in the sky.
Significantly South Indian
In India, the worship of Muruga or Skanda is generally limited to the southern states and particularly pervasive in Tamil Nadu. As most of the Indians in Malaysia and Singapore were originally from this state, the worship of this deity, who is often called the General of the Divine Army, is often their main socio-cultural link to their motherland. Outside India, amongst Tamil speaking South Indians, this festival and the deity are held in great reverence in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa. Amongst these countries, the biggest Thaipusam celebrations, bigger even than in India, is celebrated in Malaysia in Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur and Penang Island.
The celebrations had started early the morning before. The streets of Georgetown seemed to be still asleep, but the random groups of Hindu families dressed in their best clothes indicated that something was happening. I turned a corner and suddenly saw a huge, colourful crowd filling the street by the Sri Mariamman Temple in Penang’s Little India. The crowd was focused on a huge silver chariot parked in front of the temple. A few men wearing identical blue shirts and white veshti (traditional men’s garment) were standing on the chariot, preparing a spot to place the ornately decorated statue of Lord Muruga. Once the statue was installed in the chariot and the prerequisite prayers performed, the crowd stepped aside and two bulls harnessed to the chariot started the 10-km journey to Nattukotai Chettiar Temple near Penang Botanic Gardens.
After travelling for just a few moments the chariot stopped and people carrying small trays filled with offerings moved towards it to offer their gifts to Muruga. The trays were placed around the statue, while the chief priest lit camphor flames and offered prayers before returning the trays to the devotees. The chariot then moved again just to stop again a few metres further down the road. Another group of devotees brought even more trays of offerings to be blessed by their favourite deity. This process was to be repeated over and over until the chariot reached the temple.