Memories of Thaipusam – spirituality & tradition
Vague memories of Thaipusam - piercings with a true cultural and community significance.
When I was a child the festival of Thaipusam left vague images of saddus (holy men), dancing with their long matted hair, white faces, frenzied drumming and chicken blood splashed about. In Madurai a southern area of India, this is where my Nana threatened me by saying she would hand me over to these men if I didn’t eat or do as she wanted. It was this graphic imagery of men with hooks in them (white ash on there faces – set off with red markings on the forehead) which I wasn’t supposed to see, was the celebration of Thaipusam. After we left India, I didn’t often speak to anyone in Australia regarding the imagery that this festival had embedded in my brain, as most wouldn’t of understood. So as an adult with a young child I went to participate in the festival of Thaipusan being celebrated in Penang, an area of Malaysia. Its a big deal for me as I relive and begin to understand the memories that once haunted me as a kid.
What I didn’t know as a child is the meaning of Thaipusam
So each year on the full moon in January or February the Hindu community comes together to celebrate Thaipusam. It originated in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and was introduced to Malaysia in the 19th century by immigrant Indian workers. The celebration is in honor of Hindu god Lord Murugan, who was victorious over the demon Tarakusaran with a spear (vel) blessed by Mother Shakti, which liberated everyone from evil. In Penang devotees in Penang walk from the Chettiar Temple in Penang Street, Georgetown to Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple at Waterfall Road.
My first impressions of Thaipusam
My first impression was wow what a lot of people, women with their brightly coloured saris and what a strong community vibe I felt as the whole street was lined with stalls adorned with flags, flowers and with people giving away food and drinks. I accepted a few free drinks along the way to the temple it was hot and I wasn’t carrying any water. Predominantly the crowd is of Indian descent but with many Chinese Malay enjoying and participating in the celebration too. It felt totally safe as there were security there, they weren’t doing much in the way of crowd control, but there wasn’t a great deal of pushing. We were located near the street where the kavadi devotees were to come at the end of their journey, near the two temples. The kavadi is a wooden structure placed on or even nailed to the shoulders, a heavy burden to carry. I went with locals who explained the event, as they had participated in the event as children. One of my companions told me of a friend that participated one year and it took him 8 hours to get up the street from the prep zone (where the kavadi and ‘floats’ start) to the temple where they make their offerings of milk to the gods.
As dark fell we could see the lights of the floats coming down the street, the noise from the speakers was amplified, crackers were going off and the mood had changed as one felt the intensity and exhaustion of the burdened devotees who passed with there support teams. The kavadi helpers are often family members who support them through the ordeal, they will sing songs so as to distract them from the pain and fatigue that they may feel after so many hours.
Thaipusam is a spiritual journey in which devotees surrender to suffering and penance. This festival has a spiritual significance based on voluntary suffering in the hope for inner change. There are several ways that devottee will endure suffering by piercing their tongue and cheeks to prevent talking and to allow meditation with the gods. Others will have pots full of milk hang off their bodies with hooks or shoes made of nails. In preparation the devotees undergo a purification process where they eat only vegetarian food, meditate and fast in the lead up to the journey, this is done to condition the body – free the mind and to help them enter a trance like state so they feel less pain.
The procession of commitment to faith and community
I watched on the steps as kavadi devotees ascended, one in particular I could feel the exhaustion as his support group encouraged him along. I’m sure they were saying your nearly there just a few more steps. He was covered in silver pots full of milk which were hanging off him by hooks. The milk is a an offering and a symbol of purity in thought, word and deed. I was in awe of the courage, endurance and deep devotion to spirituality the Malaysian community displayed. As you age you come to respect traditions and hope that the young generation will nuture and carry on the pride of this great occasion.