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Cultural Festivals: What is Thaipusam?

By: Melinda Murphy

Early morning prayers. Piercings. Pots of milk. A long procession. To those who aren’t familiar with the Hindu ritual of Thaipusam, it may seem a strange mix. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and spiritual religious rituals celebrated around the world, steeped in ancient tradition.

We find out more about this colourful festival and how it is celebrated in Singapore – which has one of the larger Thaipusam celebrations in the region.

What is it?

The two-day event is a thanksgiving festival celebrated by the Tamil people that involves asceticism and control over one’s senses. It’s held to honour Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war who represents virtue, youth and power – a deity revered for defeating a particularly nasty demon. Devotees seek blessings, fulfil vows and give thanks.

Thaipusam in Singapore

The chariot procession

In Singapore, the first day of Thaipusam, also known as the eve, sees a chariot procession starting from Tank Road at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, a temple dedicated to Lord Murugan himself with 48 intricately etched glass panels angled to catch the light. The chariot takes Lord Murugan for a day’s visit to his brother Lord Vinayagar at Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road. Along the route, he stops at several places, including Sri Mariamman temple on South Bridge Road (Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, dating back to 1827). Here, he greets the goddess within, a manifestation of his mother. He then continues on to see his brother.

Thaipusam parade

The big day

Thaipusam starts in the wee hours, just after midnight with prayers in Little India in preparation for a 4.5-kilometre colourful procession through Singapore. The route goes from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road in Little India to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road, near Fort Canning.

The procession is actually the culmination of a 48-day period of preparation by devotees who have followed a strict vegetarian diet and spiritual preparation, including celibacy.

After prayers, which include a head-shaving ritual, the first devotees bring pots of milk, carried on their heads by worshippers including women and children. The milk symbolises fertility and abundance and it is poured over the statue of Lord Murugan at Sri Thendayuthapani as an act of offering and worship.

Thaipusam carrying milk

The kavadi

The most devoted walk on shoes made of spikes or are pierced with large skewers or hooks, through their chest, back or even tongue, which prevents them from speaking and gives them great powers of endurance. These piercings often secure kavadi, the large, ornate wooden and metal structures that are carried the length of the procession. The tradition of the kavadi goes back to an ancient Puranic legend involving Lord Murugan and two hills carried by a worshipper. The deity said that those who carry an object similar to the two hills suspended by a load-bearing pole would be blessed with their heart’s desire.

Thaipusam shoes

The word kavadi means “sacrifice at every step” in Tamil and, indeed, walking with a kavadi – which can way up to 40kg and reach up to four metres in height – is an incredible feat. The steel and wooden frame is generally a semi-circle that is attached with spikes, often decorated with peacock feathers or fruit. There are bars for support on the shoulders, but much of the weight is born by the piercings. There are simpler structures, but the more ornate ones can take hours to prepare. It’s considered a great honour to carry the kavadi for your family.

Thaipusam mouth piercing

The vel

But why? Why does somebody need to be pierced? Doesn’t it hurt? Well, supposedly not. The Hindu believe that when the mind is free of material worth and the body free from physical pleasures, the devotee can undertake the sacred task without any pain. Amazingly, when you see those who are pierced, there is very little – if any – blood. The spikes represent the vel of Murugan, his spear, a mystic divine weapon given to him by his mother.

Observing

Thaipusam is celebrated in the Caribbean, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Thailand, Guadeloupe and a few other countries and regions. The largest celebration is at the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur, with more than a million people in attendance each year. Singapore also has one of the larger Thaipusam celebrations in the world.

Hindus are very proud of their tradition, and happy to share it with people who are curious. As long as you are respectful, you’re welcome to bear witness. In fact, a few expat onlookers even tell stories about Hindu families welcoming them to celebrate the full day of festivities with them.

Thaipusam offerings

Some of the lanes along the route between the two temples are closed to traffic. You can also go into the temples themselves to watch the preparations. Be sure to go barefoot and dress respectfully, covering your shoulders and knees. While it’s a beautiful festival, it can also be a bit overwhelming for small children who don’t understand what’s happening, so consider carefully taking young kids. It can be very crowded and hot, so carry very little, drink lots of water and bring a good camera. Most of all, enjoy! This is a slice of life you probably don’t get back home.

Thaipusam children

When

8th of February 2020, early morning hours


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