Manges Eravanan | January 18, 2016
Streams of vividly coloured peacock feathers, mesmerising devotional music and throngs of people standing behind bright yellow barricades. The first time I had encountered this, I was 5 years old and staring in open mouthed wonder at the vibrant scene around me, in the name of Thaipusam, the Hindu festival in honour of Lord Karthikeya also known as Lord Murugan.
While many years have passed since, the memories remain crystal clear. Along with the queues of bare chested men carrying gigantic beautiful structures, ‘Kavadis’ and the scores of women and children carrying pots of milk, I remember starting the Thaipusam journey at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple along Serangoon Road, walking along Selegie Road, Orchard Road, Penang Lane and finally arriving at Lord Muruga’s home in Singapore, the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at the end of Tank Road.
Today, I stand behind the very same yellow barricade. The wood and steel structures of the Kavadis have become more elaborate, some spruced up with LED lights, and some built sky high. The event has become more organised with impeccable crowd management and refreshments along the way to ensure participants are well hydrated and energized .
Then I become aware of something I have never noticed before. As the devotees carrying Kavadis and Paal Kudam (milk pots) walk by, one by one, I become present to the piercings. I have seen them many times before, but this time it is with the eyes of an outsider. I wondered to myself, this self-mortification must appear quite violent to the uninitiated. Going to such lengths to fulfil on a vow is indeed difficult to understand. What may be the beauty of devotion to one, could be be viewed as self mutilation to another. So why would anyone do it? What is so special about Thaipusam? I started to delve deeper into the origins of the festival and have unearthed some nuggets of information unique to this festival.
Much of Hindu texts also known as ‘Puranas’ have narratives that surround three main deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. They represent Creation, Preservation and Destruction respectively. These three deities have their own lineage through which many of the stories behind several Hindu festivals originate. Murugan is the son of the deity Shiva and his consort, Parvati, known for his valour. In a time of great grief among the ‘Devas’ (demi-gods) who were being harassed by several ‘Asuras’ (demons), in particular the Asura named Soorapadman, Shiva opened his third eye of wisdom and created Murugan who was destined to destroy the Asuras. Shiva gifted his son with six weapons and Parvati gifted him with the seventh, a “Vel” (a spear). This weapon soon became synonymous with Murugan.
Thaipusam, as with most Hindu festivals, is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. Murugan defeats his adversary Soorapadman and instead of killing him, grants him the grace to become his vehicles, the iconic peacock and rooster. This epic battle was believed to have taken place in the Tamil month of “Thai” when the star “Pusam” was rising in the horizon, hence the name Thai+pusam. This festival has been celebrated for centuries in veneration of Murugan by devotees who take on strict vows in exchange for fulfilment of their prayers.
Alright, we’ve seen the grand structures known as Kavaidis but uh, what’s with all the piercings?
A Kavadi is a symbolic burden carried by a devotee to Murugan with the intention of receiving blessings to fulfil their wishes. This is closely associated with the story of Idumban, who impressed Lord Murugan by willingly bearing the weight of two mountains to fulfil the wish of his teacher.
Kavadis were originally simple wooden structures with milk pots attached and were decorated minimally with some peacock feathers. But over time the interpretation of ‘burden’ became more fluid and, as with most things, evolved. Some groups began the practice of mortifying their flesh as an expression of their devotion to Lord Murugan and commitment to the fulfilment of their vow. Some people felt that the bigger the vow, the bigger the burden to be fulfilled.
Preparation to carry Kavadis involve a strict 40 day regime of a vegetarian diet, abstinence and daily prayers. There is also a complete fast 24 hrs before the Kavadi is carried. Only men carry Kavadis, women carry the silver milk pots called Paal Kudam. Piercings however are undertaken by both genders.
Alright! Let’s use some big words now. Diaspora. A distinct difference can be observed in the practice of Thaipusam in India and among the Indian communities around the world. Most Kavadis in India are simple wooden structures, piercings are rare. However, in places like Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka the practice of carrying elaborate Kavadis which are secured by piercing thin steel rods into the upper body are iconic. The reason? It is likely that the sects which practiced self-mortification as an expression of devotion to Lord Murugan brought the tradition over and it caught on.
Another little known fact exclusive to Singapore is the celebration of “Chetty Pusam“. It is almost like a closed door event practiced by the Chettiar community here. This pre-festival takes place a day before Thaipusam. Members of the community practice their unique rituals and follow the Murugan chariot procession from Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road to the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Saik Road. For those who want to see what the simple Kavadi’s of the past looked like, this is the procession to watch. You can get a good view of the procession from Lau Pa Sat on the eve of Thaipusam in the evening.
For those of you familiar with the controversies surrounding Thaipusam in Singapore, there was a ban on playing musical instruments during the procession. This was imposed way back in the 1970s to prevent violence amongst rival groups who used to engage in competition. But that was back in the day! With several dialogues and feedback with and from the Indian community here, the Singapore Government has finally decided to lift the ban (with pre-conditions of course!) and we can now look forward to more creative expressions of devotion!
A festival that is truly something to watch, it is celebrated uniquely in South East Asia so don’t forget to bring a bag for your slippers if you decide to walk the route this year!
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