Milk Pots

I am entirely new to the complex world of Hindu faith and deities, so explaining Thaipusam and the events of Sunday feels a bit like cramming hundreds of years of history into one comparatively minute composition. Impossible. I’ve been going at it for nearly two days – writing, researching, deleting, rewriting and here I am again revisiting the introduction.

I went to Thaipusam Saturday and Sunday — four times, to four locations. Admittedly, I was a little obsessed even though I knew very little about the occasion. I had no idea what to expect, and in hindsight this may have turned out to be to my benefit. I scratched the surface, it whet my appetite, I went back for more, and more again, and then walked away – my head filled with images, blossoming questions and the gratitude of having experienced such a unique day in world culture.

Thaipusam vendor

Coconuts for Thaipusam

I started by venturing to Little India Saturday afternoon, expecting to find a frenzy of Thaipusam preparation. What I found instead was an unusually quiet neighborhood (very uncharacteristic), with the last remaining silver pots, peacock feathers and coconuts for sale.

Early morning Thaipusam procession

Early Sunday morning (1:00 a.m.) I went to the Thaipusam route expecting to see a parade in full regalia. What I saw instead was the modest beginning of Thai Pusam’s 24-hour procession, with men and women carrying pots on their heads striding forward in the dark .

Thaipusam

Thaipusam

Thaipusam

Thaipusam Vel Kavadi

Thaipusam Kavadi Bearer

Thaipusam Kavadi Bearer

Later Sunday morning (7:00 a.m.) I went to Serangoon road expecting to watch the same type of procession from the roadside barriers, but things had started to change. The elaborate vel and chariot kavadis of Thaipusam were beginning to emerge from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple and move slowly down the street. I watched for an hour and then decided to go to the heart of it, to the point from which it was all flowing.

Thaipusam Drummer

Milk Pot Carriers

Thaipusam

Chariot Kavadi Bearer

A Very Tall Chariot Kavadi

Kavadi Bearer

Kavadi Bearer

Kavadi Bearer

Chariot Kavadi Bearer

Colors of Thaipusam

Thaipusam Devotee

I entered the temple, filled with people in total devotion to their faith who tolerated, and even welcomed, my curiosity as I wandered around and watched for several hours as they prepared their kavadis. The intensity of the atmosphere was palpable. A stimulating cacophony of drumming and chanting never ceased. When I finally left the temple the comparative silence outside allowed my senses to rest, revealing a bit of mental exhaustion from the whole experience.

Sunday afternoon (3:00 p.m.) I went back one last time to the end of the route, this time with no expectations of what I would find. A nearly impenetrable mass of people surrounded the Sri Thendayuthapani temple where people were completing their journeys and disassembling their kavadis at a designated area outside.

I didn’t go into the temple. Having seen so many astonishing things in one day, I decided to save the end for another year and went home.

Preparing at Sri Srinivasa Temple

Preparing a Chariot Kavadi at Sri Srinivasa Temple

As a foreigner in Southeast Asia, it’s always enlightening to compare my North American expectations with the realities of events like Thaipusam. I had expected the end of the procession to be the highlight. I thought my access to the temple would be limited as a non-Hindu. I expected that Thaipusam’s hooks and spikes would only inspire nausea. Wrong, wrong and totally wrong again. It’s so humbling and invigorating to feel like such a beginner, such a student of an entire region of the world.

Chariot Kavadi Bearer

Chariot Kavadi Bearer

When I returned home I began researching the details of everything I saw. What I’ve learned since Saturday are some important aspects of Thaipusam that answer some of the questions looming in my mind and my photos. Why milk? Why peacock feathers? Why all the piercing of the skin? Why the shouting and drumming? Where on earth did all of this begin? Let’s just say… it’s complicated. There’s no way I can possibly understand all the intricacies of Thaipusam in three days (particularly since important figures in Hinduism have multiple names and spellings), but I do think I know enough now to (finger) paint a picture for anyone who cares to read on. Let’s start with language.

Top of a Kavadi

Thaipusam

The Dravidian language family includes 85 languages spoken by 250 million people. Dravidian languages are, very possibly, native to India. Tamil is a language of the Dravidian family, spoken primarily in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. Tamil is distinguished as one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world, with literature dating back more than 2,000 years. It is from Tamil-speaking Hindu communities that Thaipusam originated. In addition to India and Sri Lanka, other countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar have large Tamil-speaking populations who annually observe Thaipusam.

Leaving the temple to start the procession

Prayer before Kavadi

Thaipusam begins at midnight on the day of the full moon of the first month of the Vedic, or ancient Hindu, calendar. Thai is the Tamil name for this month and Pusam is the associated ascending constellation. Formed by three stars, Vedic followers described the constellation’s shape as the udder of a cow, from which milk flows. The name Pusam describes this image as “nourisher”, so milk is poured, carried in metal pots and offered throughout the events of Thaipusam.

Kavadi with Milk Pots

Metaphorically, Thaipusam is known as the Day of Light. It was on the full moon of the first month that Tamil saint Swami Ramalinga ascended from his physical body and merged with the light of Lord Shiva, disappearing from earth in the process.

It was also on the full moon of the first month that Hindu deity Murugan (Tamil Light of Lights, god of war, leader of the Devas or supernatural deities) conquered the Asuras, generally symbolic of bad forces and chaos. Murugan was son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati. His mount was a peacock, the most beautiful of birds, large and balanced on two small feet. He fought the Asuras with twelve weapons given to him by his parents. Lord Shiva provided him with eleven and Parvati provided him with the twelfth: a vel, also known as a lance or a spear. It was with this vel that Murugan achieved victory over the Asuras, which is the reason why vels are so highly symbolic in the rituals of Thaipusam.

Waiting for a Chariot Kavadi

A person taking part in Thaipusam often has a request for Murugan, as a provider of favors. The request most likely concerns an obstacle or challenge in life, or a desire for spiritual development. The requester carries a kavadi, symbolic of a burden or “sacrifice at every step”, and offers it to Murugan in exchange for divine assistance with his or her request. The kavadi may be small like a pot of milk or large like a metal canopy resting on the shoulders with vels attached to the skin. In whatever form, the kavadi must be carried or pulled by bare feet along a designated route. In Singapore the route is four kilometers from Sri Srinivasa temple in Little India to Sri Thendayuthapani temple near River Valley Road.

Prayer before Kavadi

For the days leading up to Thaipusam, kavadi bearers eat once a day, take a vow of celibacy, refrain from smoking and alcohol, and dwell in the thought of Murugan. On Thaipusam they dress in shades of orange and yellow and are marked on their skin with holy ash. They conduct elaborate prayer rituals and slice or shatter coconuts as symbols of the obstacles they hope to overcome. When the preparations are complete, the kavadis are assembled.

Assembling the Chariot Kavadi

For a person bearing a vel kavadi, assembling it at the beginning of the route is a long, literally painstaking process. Friends and relatives begin building the structure by anchoring it to his body, either with a belt or by use of steel posts inserted through the skin at four points around his waist. The posts are attached to shoulder pads to provide comfort and stability. The canopy – often several feet tall, symbolic of a mountain and decorated with peacock feathers in honor of Murugan – is mounted on the posts, and has a radius of three to four feet from the torso. Thin vels, with sharp ends or hooks, are threaded through holes in the canopy and attached to the body by piercing the skin. Family and friends yell and chant at the kavadi bearers as piercings take place, distracting them from the undeniable pain. Some have entire drum teams that provide intoxicating, relentless rhythm that, even for a spectator, amplifies the atmosphere away from pain into a spiritual realm.

Thaipusam  Drummer

With the canopy assembled, the kavadi bearer may take on one or two more vels through the cheeks and/or tongue, literally rendering him speechless in a vow of silence, or mouna. Surprisingly, there is no blood. Holy ash at the site of the piercings, along with fasting and meditation, stems the flow. With the final vels in place, the kavadi bearer dances and spins with the drumming, then leaves the temple and walks the route.

Dancing with a Vel Kavadi

Vel Kavadi Bearer

This entire process happens continually throughout the night and day as groups assemble kavadis and depart the temple in their own time. Kavadis vary greatly in their size and format. Some men hang limes from hooks in their torsos as a way to ward off evil spirits. Others hang dozens of small milk pots from their backs or carry a wooden pole on their shoulders with milk pots hanging from the ends, pouring the milk over a statue of Murugan at the end of the journey. The choices and combinations are endless, fascinating and clearly very personal.

Vel Kavadi Bearer

Experiencing Thaipusam is a rare and special opportunity – one to seize if the time and location present themselves. What I expected to be gruesome turned out to be incredibly reverent, requiring total focus and dedication. I found Singapore’s Tamil community peaceful, welcoming and respectful of me as an outsider looking into their world. May my words and my photos exist as my gratitude in honor of the very memorable day they shared with me.

Thaipusam

13 comments

  1. Your photos are brilliant and the narrative sensitive.
    Have to admit, I feel nauseated, despite being a Hindu, and marvel at the kind of faith required to undergo such torture!

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    1. Thank you! I really appreciate you saying “sensitive”. It’s a fine line to walk when you want to share something incredible like this while also paying it the respect it deserves. Thanks for reading Madhu! 🙂

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  2. Serangoon Road, on a normal day, is an assault on the senses. This event must have been truly incredible for you, and from the photos, not for the meek. It’s interesting that you mentioned that the Hindus welcomed your curiosity at their temple. We had a similar thing happen in Singapore. We were invited to witness a ceremony, complete with some wonderful pipe and drum music. It’s a life memory for us now. Great Post. Thanks.

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    1. Great to hear that! Sometimes it feels like there is only separation between religions, which is why I guess I’m surprised by the inclusiveness of what you and I have experienced within Hinduism. It has piqued my curiosity for sure, and I see many Hindu temples in my future. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Incredibly moving account of a fascinating event – I find myself feeling humbled and in awe of the raw courage and enormous faith displayed in this ceremonial ritual. This is travel reporting at its best – keep up the great work.

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  4. What an amazingly thorough, informative, and well-written (and well-photographed, of course!) piece. One can probably write a book on this topic but you have very effectively condensed everything about Thai Pusam to a blog entry. I especially liked reading through it because even though I’m a Hindu, there is much I didn’t know about any of this! As a young girl, I would marvel (with a small amount of horror, I must admit) at how people can pierce themselves in such ways and walk down the streets seemingly without pain. It would baffle me, worry me, and also make me look away in a mix of confusion and nausea. I haven’t lived in a place where I could see such events for awhile now, so I guess I have been somewhat removed from it. Reading your post brought back all those memories… and filled in all the gaps about all the things I never understood, despite being a Hindu! Thank you so much for your revealing, heartfelt, and warm entry on Thai Pusam. It has clarified quite a few things for me!

    Also, I must say, you are an adventurous, curious, and loving soul. I’m very happy to hear how welcoming everyone was in these surroundings (though I expected that), particularly because you were reaching outside your comfort zone to learn something new. You’re a true traveler! 🙂

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    1. Wow! Sindhu! I don’t even know what to say to an amazing comment like that. Thank you, sincerely, from my heart. I would love to hear more about your personal experience with Thai Pusam. (A future blog entry perhaps?) I can’t imagine seeing it at an early age. Having now learned so much about it, I’m really hopeful to find some people who have been kavadi bearers so I can ask them more questions. Thank you for believing in me as a loving soul and true traveler! That’s the finest compliment a travel blogger like me could ever hope to receive. Sending you much happiness and thanks! ~Kelly

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