Thaipusam – The Festival of Penance, Atonement and Thanksgiving

What is surely celebrated in a grand fashion – Thaipusam, a festival of Penance, Atonement and Thanksgiving. Also known as Kavadi Festival to devotees outside Singapore and Malaysia, this year’s is from the 31st January to 2nd February. Even much grander outside Tamil Nadu, the ancestral homeland f Singaporean and Malaysian Tamils.

In fact, Thaipusam is fervently observed not only by Tamil Hindus but by folk of other ethnicities. Who are not necessarily Hindu themselves which either fascinates or perplexes the casual observer from a largely homogeneous society.

How could this be possible? Firstly, let us trace back to the origins of the festival. Legend has it that a student was ordered by a Sage to bring him two hills which actually belonged to Lord Subramaniam. Also known as Lord Murugan, he foiled the student’s attempt but then rewarded him for his devotion to the Sage.

The skewers piercing devotees’ cheeks and tongue signify the weapon Goddess Parvati gave to her son Lord Murugan. The weapon was to subdue three demons and their followers.

Thenceforth, Thaipusam evolved into a “celebration” for penitentials who took a vow for various reasons: wanting children, passing examinations, successful business, seeking good husbands. And when their prayers are fulfilled, they partake in self-mortification for a number of years, depending on the type of vows.

It is not unusual then to see Chinese and even Malay-Muslim [as recounted by an eyewitness in Batu Caves, Malaysia] participants amongst the throng. Bystanders and gawping western tourists inclusive.

Thaipusam occurs during the full moon day in the tenth month of Thai of the Hindu calendar; that is between January and February. Devotees prepare themselves spiritually with extensive prayers and fasting weeks before performing devotional acts by carrying kavadi from one temple to another.

Kavadi – “burden” in Tamil – is a type of portable wooden altar about four feet tall and weighing roughly 20 kg. From which hung pictures of Hindu gods, and decorated with peacock feathers. The “eyes” on the feathers are believed to ward off evil spirits. It is also believed that a sighting of the bird brings good luck, bestowing peace of mind.

It is male devotees – in a trance-like state – who have skewers speared through their tongues, cheeks and bodies as a practice of self-mortification. Some women penitentials pierce only their tongues besides carrying a smaller kavadi on their shoulders. However, most other women and child devotees carry milk pots or offerings of flowers and fruits instead.

A truly remarkable event that welcomes believers of other faiths to partake. Thaipusam clearly qualifies the Multicultural Unity award, if there exists such.