I tend to visit my home country of Malaysia every year over April (Easter holidays in UK) or August (during the summer lull). For the first time in a very long time, I happened to be home this year in January. Even more fortuitously, I had plans to visit a friend in Penang over the 3 day Thaipusam weekend, one of the big religious celebrations in Malaysia.
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated primarily by the Tamil community. Although the mention of Thaipusam generally brings to mind the more famous Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur (a well-known tourist attraction annually), Penang also hosts a relatively large Tamil community, consequently resulting in Thaipusam being one of the key cultural events of the year here.
The Thaipusam festival celebrates Lord Murugan, who was created by Lord Shiva to help protect the devas, or celestial beings from the asuras, or evil forces. Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam amongst other names) was also presented with a golden spear, the Nyana Vel, and it is the day on which it was presented that is celebrated as Thaipusam.
Thaipusam tends to be celebrated in hilly areas, as the hill is where Lord Murugan traditionally lives. Hindus who have taken a vow to offer a kavadi (offering) for prayers answered or as acts of penance will choose one of a few types of kavadis to carry through the procession route, climbing the hill along the way and ending up at the temple. In Penang, this is celebrated at the Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple.
The kavadi can take several forms, from milk pots as offerings to gods, to the most spectacular vel kavadi, a huge steel frame decorated with flowers, peacock feathers and statues or photographs of Hindu deities. The steel frame is held up and supported through metal spikes inserted into the devotee’s body. Some have additional piercings through their tongues and cheeks with long skewers – it is clear from all this that only the most devoted and strongest in faith can undertake this.
To prepare for this, devotees will go through fasting (on a vegetarian diet), prayers, meditation and celibacy for the weeks or months leading up to Thaipusam. Along the procession route, mature coconuts are broken to symbolise the breaking of one’s ego during this period of self-realisation.
For visitors and tourists this is a fascinating spectacle to behold, filled with lots of colourful sights, loud singing and music, beautifully decorated shrines and stalls and a wide array of traditional Hindu sweets and food. I have uploaded below, a video which includes one of the devotees with the vel kavadi. Although I felt slightly squeamish, I couldn’t tear my eyes off the entire offering process, – perhaps you’ll find it as interesting as I did.