Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Indian communities around the world. Malaysia has a large Tamil community and the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur are said to be some of the best in the world. Thaipusam does not fall on the same date each year as it is a celebration of Thai, the Tamil month and Pusam, the name of a star. The celebration is held when the star is at it’s highest point. The simplest explanation of the festival is a celebration of good overcoming evil, when Murugan was given a spear by his mother and he used it to defeat evil forces.
This January, S.E.A. Ambassador, Ben Turland was lucky enough to land in Malaysia right in time for Thaipusam. He took in the sights with his wife and gives us the low down on what it was like to experience this spectacular event.
Thaipusam, for us started accidently. We walked back past Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown to our hostel. In all honesty we did not know that the festival was taking place, we were lucky to be in KL at the right time. There were throngs of people around the temple, handing out food parcels and this magnificent silver chariot was centre of attention. At around 10pm the procession began and thousands of people became one sprawling massive procession, completely stopping traffic across Kuala Lumpur. The chariot continued along a set route through the city all the way to Batu Caves, fifteen or so kilometres away taking all night to arrive. The chariot is a representation of Lord Murugan coming to greet the people.
The streets are packed full with people making offerings to Lord Murugan, including fruit. This offering was burnt and the followers inhaled the smoke and prayed as the chariot passed.
People dress in yellow or orange and offer flowers of the same colour, said to be Murugans favourite colour. The vases carried on top of peoples heads are full of milk and are carried all the way as a sign of faith. Many others will carry structures attached to their body called kadavis. The more people carry can be seen as a sign of devotion.
The giant, gold statue is of Lord Murugan himself, it is the second largest statue of a Hindu deity in the world and has been in place at Batu Caves since 2006. The thaipusam celebrations here date back to 1888, however.
The preparations for thaipusam actually begin 48 days before the event, where devotees will begin cleansing by fasting, prayers and taking a vow of celibacy, not eating meat or cutting their hair. On the day of the celebration the head is shaved and smeared with orange paste.
Cheeks and tongues are pierced with vels, to signify the spear given to Murugan by his mother. They also prevent talking and are another sign of devotion. By renouncing the ability to talk the devotee can focus all their energies on the deity.
There is a carnival like atmosphere around resembling more of a party even with the self mortification of the devotees. Bands and drummers will walk in the procession attached to a devotee carrying a Kadavi. If he is weak, or losing is his will to continue the band sing and play frentic music to re-energise the devotee. Often they will raise from their slumber and dance around on the spot as a reflection of Murugan, the lord of the dance.
Devotees attach hooks to their backs and carry fruit, often limes or oranges as a sign of faith to the deity. Others will go much further by pulling structures by ropes attached their backs with hooks.
Devotees who carry kadavis will have a team of people all doing their part to help him get to the caves. There will be people who flank him to stop him falling over when he is weak, or to stop him going off course when he is dancing. One person will carry a stool for when he is tired and they will massage his feet and legs as he has walked for 15 kilometres by this point with up to 100kilos of weight attached to him. Others will carry water and fruit for him before they all climb the 272 steps to the caves together. The will all chant and encourage him on his pilgrimage.
Devotees also break coconuts as a symbol of submission to God.