by Jana Thevar
What is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is quite something. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s a festival and holy day dedicated to the Hindu deity Muruga (also known as Karthikeya). The biggest Thaipusam celebration in the world takes place annually in Batu Caves, Malaysia. Smaller-scale celebrations also take place in other locations, mainly Penang and Ipoh.
I was in Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple in South India last year after my yoga course, and one of the street vendors handed me a name card. Guess what? It had a picture of Batu Caves on it, under the words “Sila Datang Lagi”. I mean, how cool is that? Malaysian Indian pride! Vetrivel Murugannuku Arohara!
The festival is made up of so many things. I don’t quite know how to describe Thaipusam in simple terms. It’s not just a cave temple, 272 steps and a big golden statue that offends religious fanatics of unrelated faiths for no apparent reason. Thaipusam is spiritual, religious, fun, exciting, overwhelming, chaotic, controversial, shocking, mesmerizing, colorful, loud and awe-inspiring. Yes, all at once.
It’s having between one to two million people in one location for the purpose of taking part in one of the most thrilling religious experiences in the world. It’s thousands of pierced human beings, with spears through their tongues and cheeks, single-mindedly making their way through absolute chaos to reach the temple on the top of the hill to fulfil their vows. There’s a silver chariot procession. Lots of coconut breaking. Dancing kavadi bearers and urmi drums.
Attendees of the festival? About as diverse as it can get. Old, young, Indian, Chinese, white, black, devotees, atheists, locals, tourists, vendors. The usually calm temple grounds explode into a pandemonium of sights and sounds for an all-encompassing sensory experience.
Experiencing Thaipusam for the First Time?
If you’re new to this and would like to experience the festival first-hand, I have some words for you: it will be an experience of a lifetime for sure, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you can’t deal with massive crowds, loud noises, shocking sights, garbage, tropical heat and / or rain and the subsequent burning tar roads and / or mud-sludge, Thaipusam in Batu Caves is not for you (try Penang for a milder version).
If you’re a thrill-seeker, adventurous enough and game for it, then…welcome, welcome! Be prepared to have your senses assailed and for an experience you can talk about till your dying day. To get the best out of your Thaipusam experience, go with a trusted Malaysian Indian friend or family and you’ll be just fine. They will brief you on the precautions, take care of you and show you the ropes.
Why Thaipusam is Celebrated
Very briefly, the religious story goes something like this. Lord Muruga, one of the most powerful deities in Hinduism, is asked to defeat a powerful and evil demon. He was provided with divine weapons by his parents, Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. The most powerful weapon he received was a celestial spear from his mother (Tamil translation: vel). After a long and difficult battle, Lord Muruga successfully vanquished the demon. During the festival of Thaipusam, one will hear the chanting of “Vel, vel” or “Vetri vel” continuously (Tamil translation: vetri = victory), and this is the reason why.
Therefore, Thaipusam is a symbolic and metaphorical celebration of victory against the dark forces, as well as a day for devotees to show their love and appreciation to Lord Muruga. The act of spiritually observing and participating in the festival can also be interpreted in other ways, such as victory over a personal weakness or challenge.
Why Devotees Do What They Do On Thaipusam
The main reason why Thaipusam is so sensational among non-Hindus is the practice of mortification of the flesh, done by thousands during the festival. Devotees pierce their tongues, cheeks, chests and backs with long spears and hooks as part of their vows. They have their personal reasons for this.
For instance, my friend had prayed for the speedy recovery of his mother who was suffering from cancer. His mother eventually got better, and he made a vow to carry a kavadi the following year and have his body pierced with 108 steel hooks. I have never done it, but I see tongue-piercing as a symbolic act of ‘victory’ over the organ of taste and speech, which is capable of making one a slave to the senses, or cause damage to others merely by the use of words.
My family astrologer and priest, gurukkal Velu Iyer, shared similar views with me about this. He said that the tongue is an organ that can be detrimental to spiritual advancement. The tongue can cause one to become attached to sense gratification, such as becoming addicted to food, leading to greed and gluttony.
The organ can also cause problems if one utters words that are negative or cause harm to others due to improper speech. He told me that piercing the tongue with a small spear for Thaipusam is one way to increase one’s awareness of such things, and gain spiritual control over these weaknesses. In some ways, it’s an act of purification and sanctification. Of course, not everybody will agree with this point of view, but this was his interpretation. Similarly, devotees have their personal reasons for the austerities they undertake during Thaipusam.
What’s Beautiful about Thaipusam
Unity. It’s lovely to see the whole Indian community coming together from all over the country for a religious / spiritual reason. Shaivites, Vaishnavites, Sai Baba or ISKCON people, it doesn’t matter. They’re all there and everyone’s in a good mood, helping each other.
Diversity. While Hindus make up the majority of crowd, there are people of all other faiths, races and nationalities there as well. Many are friends and well-wishers of kavadi bearers who’ve come there to show their support. Others are tourists, vendors and stall owners. What’s great is everyone is helpful and respectful throughout the festival.
Festive Atmosphere and Shopping. There’s almost nothing you CAN’T buy at Thaipusam. The grounds are packed with stalls selling everything from vegetarian food to clothing, desserts to toys. My best Thaipusam buy was years ago. It was a solid bronze bangle carved with ancient dragon heads at the openings, not unlike Celtic jewellery. I bought it from a creepy-looking, dreadlocked gypsy man covered in talismans. The bangle was neatly displayed on his cloth mat of wares, next to a row of jackal skulls and rusted horseshoes.
Here’s a picture of the bangle, captured by a friend in Rishikesh, sometime in 2016.
Spiritual Experience. Even mere onlookers can benefit from the spiritual vibrations of the festival. Any observer will quickly realize that carrying a heavy steel kavadi under the searing Malaysian heat, in addition to having to navigate through a jam-packed colossal crowd while barefoot, then climbing 272 stairs up a hill is no easy feat.
Bear in mind that most kavadi bearers have undergone severe penance leading up to Thaipusam (usually 40 days or more), which means a strict vegetarian diet, complete abstinence from sex, sleeping on the floor and more. How do they do it? Two words: faith and devotion.
The Bad and the Ugly
I guess I can’t ignore the embarrassing news that make Malaysian headlines each year, so I may as well talk about it. You know that saying in Malay, kerana nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga? That’s pretty much sums up the behavior of certain members of the Malaysian Indian community.
Gang fights. Judging by past year occurrences, Thaipusam seems to be a popular time for this activity, and Batu Caves the chosen venue. Which baffles me…why? Machas have 364 other days in the year for limb amputation, parang-wielding, beheading and screaming slogans while brandishing numbered signs and flags.
Malaysia is a spacious country too, and Batu Caves isn’t the best venue for gang-clashing. Consider our country’s numerous crematoriums – spacious, peaceful, no police in sight for miles. And such convenience to dispose of those of you who don’t make it.
Saree Blouse Moral Compass Committee. So we have this bunch of, er, well-meaning Malaysian Indian brothers who have deep concerns about the styles of saree blouses worn by women during Thaipusam. Too sexy, back too low, front too open, sleeves too short, etc.
I was always under the impression that if one attends a religious or spiritual festival, one’s attention should be focused on said religious or spiritual festival. You know, the whole inner peace, we-are-not-this-body and God-is-within thing. Not on trending saree blouse designs in the vicinity of Batu Caves and how much skin is showing. So dear brothers, if you make an attempt to focus on your faith and devotion, perhaps look inward instead of outward, you’ll save yourselves a lot of stress. People are responsible for their own words, thoughts and actions. If their choice of fashion offends Lord Muruga, he will deal with that and it’s really not your problem.
Perhaps you’d judge a woman for her manner of dressing in a temple, then go home and forget about it. Fair enough, that’s your right to do so. I’ve seen bottles of Club 99 littered around my office after weekends. Common Google searches that lead people to my blog include “Tamanna topless saree” and “mallu big boobs wet saree” (I’m sorry you were led to my article on how to wash silk sarees with an image of a decently-clad Tamanna). Can Lord Muruga see these things? Of course not. He’s in Batu Caves. Right?
To those brothers who are still overly fascinated with saree blouse designs, I highly recommend a trip to Tengku Kelana Road in Klang town. The tailors there will be more than happy to provide you with catalogues on the latest jacket designs. You could probably buy the catalogues off them to have your own copy and skip Thaipusam the following year altogether for everyone’s sake.
Disagreements. Some say the temple committee is corrupt. Others have something to say about the way Thaipusam is organized. And there’s that concern about milk wastage. I kind of agree with the last point. Anything offered to the deity should be consumed as prasada because it’s highly energized and blessed food, so what’s the point of letting it run down the drain? Quite insulting.
If after all these years the temple committee has still not figured out a way to collect the milk for consumption of the devotees, let me share something I practice which may be useful. Every year about a week before Thaipusam, I take offerings (milk, fruits, flowers) for the deity and have my archanai done, in any temple where there’s a Muruga deity. That way, at least I know the milk will be used for temple purposes such as cooking. The priests can have it too, I don’t mind, as long as it doesn’t go to waste.
So there it is, my take on the Malaysian Indian Thaipusam experience. I will continue to attend Thaipusam because I love it. I enjoy the good, ignore the bad and just have a great time with a delicious glass of mooru from the free stalls.
Vetrivel Murugannuku Arohara!