While many of us associate Thaipusam with crowds at temples and the awe-inspiring sight of kavadi bearers, how many of us actually understand the significance of the occasion?
Thaipusam comes from an amalgam of the words “Thai” – referring to the Tamil month of Thai (January – February) – and Pusam – the brightest star during this period. Falling between 15 January and 15 February every year, Thaipusam is a celebration of Lord Murugan’s victory over Soorapadman’s tyranny.
Soorapadman believed himself invincible since he cannot be killed by anything other than a being that was a manifestation of Lord Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities. Unluckily for him, Lord Murugan was one such being and he used his spear or vel, which was given to him by Lord Shiva’s consort, Parvati, to defeat Soorapadman.
So it is that during Thaipusam, the people thank Lord Murugan for granting their wishes and defeating the “daily demons” that plague their lives, be it illnesses, career blocks or infertility. Believers not only thank him, they also ask forgiveness for trangressions made, as well as pray for blessings.
The rituals of Thaipusam usually begin much earlier before the big day itself. Some devotees fast for more than a month before the occasion while others shave their heads as an act of gratitude, repentance or as a poignant plea to have prayers answered.
On the eve of Thaipusam, the image of Lord Murugan is transported from one temple to another, accompanied and waited on by devotees bearing offerings to the deity. Milk, a symbol of purity and virtue, as well as flowers and fruits are common Thaipusam offerings. Kavadis, literally “sacrifice at every step”, can be seen attached to devotees via hooks and thin spears that pierce their backs, cheeks and mouths.
This can be quite a sight for onlookers who no doubt wonder how these kavadi bearers withstand the pain, but devotees will tell you that their fervent faith in their Lord Murugan’s protection spares them from pain and prevents them from shedding blood. Bearing a kavadi is an act of devotion and humility.
Additionally, coconuts are smashed to signify the breaking of the ego and the emergence of a purer self.
In Batu Caves – one of the focal points of Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia – the procession accompanying the silver chariot bearing Lord Murugan’s idol, starts from Sri Mahamariamman, in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, to the temples of Batu Caves. The procession usually starts before midnight on the eve of Thaipusam and is a 15 kilometre journey that can easily take 8 hours.
Devotees wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of Lord Murugan on his chariot and extend their offerings while hundreds of thousands more join the procession to the temples. The number of people at Batu Caves during Thaipusam can range from 700,000 right up to 1.5 million. At Batu Caves, devotees faithfully carry their offerings and kavadi bearers staunchly shoulder their burdens up 272 steps to the temple.
Celebrations also take place in other parts of the country. Other principal places of celebration include the Waterfall Temple in Penang and Kallumalai Temple in Ipoh, Perak.
Thaipusam, to any who are lucky to witness the festivities, is both a vivid celebration of colours and a fascinating display of faith. Yet, this is not the only Hindu festival that is worth bearing witness to. Other holy days, important to Hindu belief and culture, are just as interesting and engrossing.
Deepavali, literally meaning “rows of lamps”, for example, is a celebration of light triumphing over dark. On this day in the Tamil month of Aippasi (October – November), one legend has it that the Lord Krishna defeated the demon king Naraka. Hindus celebrate the occasion by anointing themselves in oil and partaking in a ritual bath early in the morning on Deepavali day. Then new clothes are worn and prayers are performed. Deepavali is quite possibly the best known Hindu festival in Malaysia. Other festivals besides Thaipusam and Deepavali are:
Celebrated for four days, beginning from the first day of the Tamil month of Thai, Ponggal means the “boiling over” of rice and is a thanksgiving to the elements that have contributed to a good harvest – mainly the sun and the cattle. On this day, the cattle gets a well-deserved day of rest, a good wash and their sheds similarly get a thorough cleaning. They are also decorated with garlands and fed with ponggal – sweet rice. The Sun God is thanked as well with both prayers and sweet rice. But the gratitude isn’t only limited to the Sun God and the cattle; on the third day of celebration, visits are made to family and friends, employers customarily present gifts to their employees and single women present offerings to their home deities, praying for a worthy husband.
Taking place on the 13th night of the Tamil month of Masi (February – March), this is a festival of fasting and prayers. It is also known as Shiva’s Night.
This festival falls on the same day as that of Lord Shiva’s union with Parvathi and the birth of Lord Murugan from sparks emanating from Lord Shiva’s eyes. Falling on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of Panguni (March – April), the festival is celebrated much like Thaipusam in Murugan temples.
Tamil New Year
Here new year refers to the first day of the Tamil month of Chittirai (April – May). It is on this day that the sun enters the first sign of the Hindu zodiac – Aries. During the Tamil New Year (also known as the Hindu New Year), the house is thoroughly cleaned and decorated. This includes the prayer room which will be adorned with gold jewellery, rice, silk cloths and other favourable objects. Those who take part in the celebrations wear new clothes, eat a vegetarian meal and go to the temple to perform prayers.
Literally meaning “Nine Nights”, this festival is celebrated in the Tamil month of Puraddasi (September – October). The celebrations are in honour of the goddess Shakti, who is the “Great Divine Mother” in Hindu belief. On this day, a kolu – a dais with nine steps – is filled with the images of Hindu deities and saints while the “Great Divine Mother” is invited to take her place on a kumpam – a beautifully decorated, water-filled pot that is covered with husked coconut as well as mango leaves and placed on banana leaf that also has rice on it. Offerings in the form of nine types of grains are placed at the kumpan as well.