Photo by Callous Gee
Thaipusam is an annual festival where countless Hindu devotees from across the world participate in one of the most intrinsic and spiritual celebrations there is. According to Wonderful Malaysia, when the festival actually takes place is based on a full moon day in the month of Thai (either January or February) in the Hindu calendar. The word itself “Thaipusam” comes from the word “thai”, the name of the festival month, and “pusam,” the name of a star. This particular festival is celebrated because of the goddess Parvati who gave Vel, which is a sacred spear, to Lord Muruga. With this, Lord Muruga helped conquer evil from the demon, “Soorapadman,” who invaded the heavens and took the “devas” (divine beings) as his prisoners. The celebration itself is a time for prayers and penance. Most of us know that it is celebrated in India and throughout South East Asia. But, according to Roots, it is also practised in Mauritius, Fiji and some Caribbean Islands.
Let’s have a little history lesson and learn more about where Thaipusam is famously celebrated at and why it’s even a celebration in Malaysia. An article by the BBC says that Thaipusam was brought to Malaysian shores in the 1800s when Indian migrants started to work on rubber estates and government offices. From there, the practices were celebrated amongst the Hindu community and blossomed into a festival for them to carry out prayers and ceremonies. The site of Batu Caves was promoted as a place of worship by K. Thamboosamy Pillai, who was an Indian trader. According to an article on LinkedIn, it started back in 1891 when he asked his close associates to scout for an ideal place of worship for Lord Muruga. The location of Batu Caves was brought to his attention. The vel-shaped entrance of the main cave is what mainly inspired him to dedicate a temple to Lord Muruga within the caves.
Photo by Taylor Simpson
For Hindu devotees, Thaipusam involves a lot of physical and mental discipline. Many have to purify their bodies and spirits by fasting, eating only vegetarian meals, as well as abstaining from alcohol and sex. This process is to ensure that they keep their bodies, minds and spirits clean and pure. The duration and type of abstinence people practice may vary from person to person, but majority follow a ritual beforehand. On the day itself, people engage in different acts of devotion. The most common acts are carrying symbolic representations of ‘kavadi’ (known as a physical burden) which range from milk pots to heavy ornaments.
What is also common is seeing devotees with hooks and needles pierced through their skin, tongue and cheeks. According to an article by the South China Morning Post, this ritual is seen as self-sacrifice, intended to fight inner demons. To help those enduring a pain-free experience, professional body piercers help these devotees enter a trancelike state to divert their senses from pain. This process is done by using incense, beating drums and saying prayers to Lord Murugan.
Photo by Afiq Fatah
Thaipusam is celebrated faithfully with the pilgrimage that gives devotees powers of endurance to fulfil their vows. The significance behind the kavadi is it represents a person’s vow or offering to Lord Muruga to assist them in healing either mentally, spiritually or physically. The same applies to when a person chooses to pierce their bodies, it resembles an offering to deities but more so to Lord Muruga, the God who helped defeat evil.
Every tradition, festival and ritual is rich in history, and living in a multiethnic country allows people to learn more about them. In doing so, we grow to be open-minded, diverse and accepting of others — which is what is experienced during Thaipusam. Being reflective helps strengthen our sense of self, and that’s a lesson we can all learn from understanding the history behind Thaipusam.
By Kavitha Supramaniam