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.
Kavadis and Coconuts
At the head of the procession I noticed a group of men carrying wooden constructions on their backs. It was a kavadi, a physical burden. The kavadi is a penance and a thanksgiving rolled into one. I learnt from the devotees there that the kavadi is a devotional act of carrying a burden laden with milk, honey and fruits to be offered to Muruga. However, I was also told to expect some truly amazing kavadis on Thaipusam day itself where devotees undergo severe penance, pierce their bodies with sharp instruments and carry very heavy kavadis. I was even more intrigued at this spectacular example of human devotion and dedication.
Along the chariot’s route, I noticed large piles of coconuts placed every few hundred metres. Not only Hindus were building the coconuts into neat piles, a few piles were manned by local Chinese too, who’ve come to offer gratitude for the blessings received from Muruga. As soon as the coconut pile minders spotted the chariot, they started grabbing the husked coconut and smashed them on the ground. The juice and the pieces of shell went flying in the air, as more and more coconuts hit the ground. Soon, the tar road was covered in a carpet of shell, coconut meat, husk and coconut water. The wheels of the chariot crossed over the coconut carpet, pulverising the debris underneath. “It is all about getting to the white flesh inside the coconut”, said a man standing beside me. “The hard shell represents man’s ego: Hard and stubborn. The white flesh is clean, pure and untainted. It symbolises the human soul. That should be everyone’s goal, to shed the ego and reveal the pure soul.”
Preparing for Penance
The next day, I was up by 4.00am. I quickly dressed and set out to a small temple, about four kilometres away. I wasn’t sure of its exact location but decided to follow the crowd who seemed to know exactly where to go. It was still dark, but the small open space next to the temple was already filled with small groups of people. I joined them and suddenly, entered an amazing spectacle. A number of young men were undergoing an extraordinary feat, having sharp objects pierce their bodies before large kavadis decorated with peacock feathers, tinsel and statues of Hindu gods. The kavadi bearers displayed no signs of pain and neither were there any signs of blood. In their trance-like state, the devotees seemed totally oblivious to what was happening and neither did their physical bodies respond to normal sensory perception like pain and fear.
The atmosphere there was electrifying with musicians playing rhythmic beats on their drums and Indian trumpets, increasing the tempo as each devotee had his cheek or tongue pierced. This, paired with the heady aroma of incense and chanting of “Vel, Vel!” added to the excitement and soon, the men and women were all ready to walk the final mile to the main temple bearing their offerings.
I found out that it takes a lot preparation before one is allowed to carry a kavadi or have metal skewers pierce one’s body. Leading up to the festival, devotees who have taken vows to carry the kavadi, undergo a very austere form of penance for a mandala (48 days), dining on meagre vegetarian meals and foregoing any form of creature comfort, even sleeping on the floor on a thin mat. This strict undertaking prepares them to focus on their devotion and forego all forms of worldly pleasures, enabling them to slip into trance quickly for the piercing and carrying of the kavadi.
Carrying the Burden
The variety of kavadi at the temple took me by surprise. The simplest and most popular one was a thin skewer put through the tongue, which silenced the devotee, enabling him to shut out the world. Larger skewers were used to pierce the cheeks. Then of course, there were the hooks put through the devotees back and attached with small pots filled with milk. Apart from the skewers and metal instruments, a number of devotees carried simple wooden structure decorated with lively images of Lord Muruga. I was told that this was the most basic offering, enabling anyone to offer their gratitude to the deity, as long as their hearts and intentions were pure.
Outside South India, Thaipusam is celebrated in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore on a grand scale. The festival falls around late January and early February annually. Check with local tourism organisations for exact dates.
Concluding at the Hill
I spent a few more hours watching this fascinating spectacle. Soon, darkness gave way to light and the place filled up with huge crowds, both devotees and spectators. I decided it was time to head to Nattukotai Chettiar temple, which was the final destination. I joined a man caring huge kavadi. The construction was spectacular and it looked incredibly heavy. I could see that each step was a struggle for the man, as the weight of the kavadi was weighing him down, pushing him to the sides. Every few hundred metres, he’d stop for kavadi attam, a ritual dance performed by kavadi bearers.
The day was hot, making the 5-km journey even more difficult for those carrying their burden. But they moved forward, despite the heat and the weight of the burden they were carrying. I saw a few young boys caring pots of milk on their heads. They looked young and innocent, but the seriousness on their faces indicated that this pilgrimage was very important to them.
As I reached the temple, I merged with the colourful crowd filling the temple area and I watched the celebrations with fascination. Those two days were some of the most amazing I have ever experienced.