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.
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 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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.