Although the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is not recognised as a public holiday in Singapore, this eye-catching festival with its colourful processions, decorated kavadis, and its most distinctive feature of skin piercings, is such an interesting event that it brings the traffic in Singapore to a standstill every year - but for good reason.
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam is a thanksgiving festival celebrated by the Tamil and Malayali communities. Every year, thousands of devotees rise at daybreak in preparation for this religious festival to celebrate and honor Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan), who represents virtue, youth, power, and is the destroyer of evil. The word ‘Thaipusam’ is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam. This festival is celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ which coincides with the timing of when the Pusam star is at its highest.
The festival takes place over two days - on the eve, the chariot procession takes place from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Siak Road. As the chariot makes a stop at the Sri Mariamman Temple, Sri Murugan is said to greet the Goddess within, as she is the manifestation of Goddess Parvathi - his mother. The chariot then moves on to the Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple where the statue of Sri Murugan is ceremonially carried and installed inside the temple. On Thaipusam day, prayers are conducted and devotees carrying offerings leave for Sri Thendayuthapani just after midnight. Throughout the day, devotees leave the temple in groups and make their way with offerings until evening. Upon their arrival, they present their milk pots and the offerings are collected and poured over the Vel. Devotees who have completed their vows will then receive sacred ash.
The Kavadi Attam is a ceremonial sacrifice and offering practiced by devotees in honor of Lord Murugan that emphasises a debt bondage. The ceremony begins early in the morning with devotees walking barefoot and carrying milk pots - which symbolises abundance and fertility - or wooden kavadis decorated with flowers and peacock feathers balanced on their shoulders. ‘Kavadi’ means ‘sacrifice at every step’ in Tamil, which is evident in how the kavadi is hoisted by a devotee throughout the procession; though it has bars for support, the kavadis can weigh up 80kg. Another common practice for some devotees is to have their flesh pinched, tugged, and pierced. This is contributed by the month-long vegetarian fast done in preparation as devotees believe that the mind and body should both be free from physical pleasures, and should undergo suffering to be rid of all evil in order to undertake the sacred task during Thaipusam without feeling pain.