Timing couldn’t have been more perfect. By accident we arrived in George Town, Malaysia, the day before Thaipusam, one of the busiest times in this UNESCO World Heritage city. No wonder we had such a hard time finding a room!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamils (roughly, south Indians), who comprise the majority of Malaysia’s Indian population. The holiday takes place on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai, when the star Pusam is at its highest point in the sky, to commemorate the occasion when Parvati, the Great Goddess and the wife of the god Shiva, gave her son, the Hindu god of war and victory Murugan, a vel (spear) to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.
Thaipusam in Penang dates back to the 1850s. On Thaipusam Eve, our second day, we walked around town in search for another place to stay. On Jalan Dato Keramat we ran into the procession of the silver chariot carrying the likeness of Lord Murugan from the the downtown Kovil Veedu (House) Temple, where it had started at 6:00 a.m., to the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, which it would reach at about midnight.
Devotees handed platefuls of offerings—fruits, flowers, and incense—to the god as he passed through the crowd, the chariot enveloped in incense smoke.
Other devotees welcomed the chariot by smashing coconuts on the road ahead of it to express the shattering of their ego and to symbolize purity in pursuit of self-realization. It seemed many were doing it just for fun.
On Thaipusam Day, a pilgrimage leads from the Lorong Kulit Temple to the Waterfall Temple. The lot where the town’s main flea market takes place became a staging area, where family members and co-religionists helped young men put on their kavadi, large carriers built out of metal frames, some of which hold skewers piercing the bearer’s torso.
Most kavadis were decorated with peacocks, Lord Murugan’s favorite vehicle; other decorations included flowers or milk pots. The kavadi bearers also got skewers pierced through their mouth to symbolize the vel. Carrying kavadis can be an act of penance or fulfillment of a vow done to develop spirituality.
Some of the men had brass milk pots hooked directly into the skin of their torso. The trance-like state these men entered at the time is said to reduce their pain but I still cringed watching the installation.
We milled around the area in the intensifying heat and observed the kavadis emerge on the young devotees’ shoulders. The loud, droning drumming of groovers and the potent smell of incense suffused the space and lent it a mystical air.
We set out on the 5-kilometer pilgrimage route with a group of ‘our’ kavadi bearers. Every few dozen meters they danced in front of thaneer panthal stalls, which families and companies set up to distribute free vegetarian food and non-alcoholic beverages. Bare feet hit the pavement painted with kolam, flower-like symbols aiming to welcome people and bring prosperity, to the deafening tune of Indian dance music. Devotees carried large brass pots filled with milk on their heads. A man with hooks in his back watched it all with an expressionless face.
The crowds became thicker and thicker, and the stalls selling souvenirs, decorative items, and refreshments multiplied. We picked up a delicious free meal at one of the thaneer panthals, fueling up for the final stretch. The Waterfall Hilltop Temple came into view among the trees. We walked alongside the river which had turned white from all the milk poured over the Lord Murugan statue as an offering in the temple’s inner sanctum.
The sun beat down on us as we inched up more than 500 steps to the destination, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of devotees and visitors. The crowd parted whenever men carried an elderly or a disabled person on a stretcher, chanting “Vel, vel!” as they hurried up the stairs.
Compared to the intensity of the procession, reaching the temple felt a little anticlimactic. Relief swept over us as we regained our personal space and walked around, shaded from the sun, barefoot on the cool marble tiles. Offerings of milk and coconuts were made. In the corner a woman sang to the tune of a sitar. Children ran all over. Helpers unhooked brass pots from torsos.
Exhausted and overwhelmed, the following day, which was the third and final of Thaipusam, we skipped the silver chariot’s return procession and took it easy to recover from the most intense experience of the trip so far.
Did you witness this year’s Thaipusam in Penang or Kuala Lumpur? The 2015 Thaipusam will take place on February 3. Will you be there?
Until then, here’s a brass potful of photos from the festivities: