Thaipusam is one of the most exceptional festivals in the world, and the best place to experience it in all its vibrant, unconventional glory is in Penang. This year Thaipusam will be celebrated on January 31, so if you’re in Penang at this time, don’t miss the opportunity to experience this unique Hindu celebration.
Why is it celebrated?
Thaipusam is considered one of the most important festivals amongst Hindus in Malaysia and Singapore. Locally, Kuala Lumpur and Penang see the biggest festivities, and it’s considered one of the most extreme examples of religious zeal in the world. The word Thaipusam comes from the word ‘thai’ meaning tenth and ‘pusam’ meaning ‘when the moon is at its brightest’. Usually celebrated in the month of January or February, this is a day of penance and prayers, and is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the god of power and virtue.
According to legend, the festival celebrates the feats of Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam) and it was on Thaipusam when he appeared before his believers on a peacock after triumphing over the evil asuras (demons) who were attacking the devas (celestial beings). He appeared on his chariot, carrying a gold spear and wearing amazing jewels.
This is why today’s celebrations focus on Lord Murugan’s statue as it’s decorated, placed in a chariot and taken on a procession through town to a temple. It’s also believed that he answers prayers and dispenses favours, which is why his followers make vows in gratitude and practise strict forms of penance.
Photo: Adrian Cheah
The kavadi and those piercings
There are several types of kavadi (‘sacrifice at every step’ in English) that are carried, with the simplest being a wooden arch that’s sometimes decorated with peacock feathers, on a short wooden pole. Others are more elaborate and heavy, and the carriers are often pierced with skewers through their cheeks and tongues, and small hooks on their backs. Preparation for this usually begins a week before Thaipusam with devotees going through a strict purification process involving abstinence and a vegetarian diet. What’s puzzling is the lack of bleeding and pain from the piercing – this is attributed to the intense faith and trance-like state of the worshippers.
Women often carry offerings of fruits and flowers, and pots of milk which are poured over the statue of Lord Murugan at the end of the procession.
And the streets were paved with coconuts
The roads leading to and from the temples where the procession begins and ends are closed to vehicles during Thaipusam and covered with smashed coconuts. The coconuts are a ritual done to ‘break one’s ego’ and is an act of purification. There are piles of the fruit for sale along the route, but if you’re lucky, someone will pass you one, so you can have a go. The clean-up is done quickly so that the chariot can pass through.
The Penang Procession
This year, the statue of Lord Murugan will be brought on a golden chariot (reportedly worth RM3 million!) from Little India at 5am on January 30, and is expected to reach the Waterfall Hilltop Temple by midday where it will remain until the return journey on February 1 at 5pm. Also happening this year is a blood moon (total lunar eclipse), which means that prayers will be stopped at 6pm on the day of Thaipusam.
If you’re catching the procession this year, you can expect to see approximately 400 kavadi bearers and 30,000 milk pot carriers making their way to the temple. Use public transport and ride-sharing services, be respectful of the fact that this is a religious event, and be prepared to be mesmerised.
Catch the procession as they follow the route to the Waterfall Hilltop Temple (Jan 30) and back to town (Feb 1).
Jan 30: Arulmigu Maha Mariamman Temple on Queen Street – Lebuh Chulia – Lebuh Victoria – Jalan Prangin – Jalan Magazine – Jalan Dato Keramat – Jalan Utama – Jalan Kebun Bunga – Waterfall Hilltop Temple.
Feb 1: Waterfall Hilltop Temple – Jalan Gottleib – Jalan Air Rajah – Jalan Macalister – Jalan Anson – Jalan Burma – Jalan Transfer – Jalan Sri Bahari – Jalan Penang – Jalan Campbell – Pitt Street – China Street – Beach Street – Market Street – Queen Street.