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Thaipusam, Singapore
Photograph: Lawrence Wee/Shutterstock

The ultimate guide to Thaipusam in Singapore

Every year, the Hindu festival brings Singapore's roads to a standstill with a colourful procession – but this year is set to be different

Written by
Eliza Juliet Tay
&
Time Out Singapore editors
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Although the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is not recognised as a public holiday in Singapore, this religious procession still sees hundreds of devotees take to the streets to give thanks and seek blessings for the new year. The most iconic part of the festival is the massive kavadi which is carried by devotees, some with skin piercings.

This year, Thaipusam takes place on January 28. It’s also set to be different due to restrictions. While there won’t be a physical procession happening this year, there are other ways you can get involved, from soaking in the sight, smell and sound of Little India, to joining a virtual edition of the festival’s pilgrimage route. But before you do so, get to know what Thaipusam is all about with our handy guide.

RECOMMENDED: The ultimate guide to Little India

What is Thaipusam?
Photograph: Gnohz/Shuttestock

What is Thaipusam?

A thanksgiving of sorts, Thaipusam sees 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. 

While it is a thanksgiving festival, its name doesn’t really translate to mean ‘thanksgiving’. Instead, 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.

When does it take place?
Photograph: Jay Santos/Shutterstock

When does it take place?

This year, Thaipusam falls on Thursday, January 28, 2021. One common misconception is that the festival marks Lord Murugan’s birthday. However, the date actually honours his brave act of vanquishing the demon Soorapadman. The festival also generally lasts for two days, and actually begins on the eve of the day itself. Prior to the festival, worshippers usually spend a month spiritually preparing themselves for the big day, and this includes following a strict month-long vegetarian diet.

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How is it celebrated?
Photograph: Lawrence Wee/Shutterstock

How is it celebrated?

The ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning, with devotees carrying the main draw: the kavadi. It’s an intricate structure decorated with flowers and peacock feathers – symbols of Lord Murugan – and used for religious self-mortification in Hinduism. It can also be as heavy as 80-kilograms and reach up to four-metres high. While it might seem quite intimidating to see some of the kavadi bearers with skewers pierced through their tongues, they often feel a sense of peace and may even enter a trance-like state.

For those who choose not to partake in piercings from the kavadi can carry the wooden structures without spikes or milk pots as offerings for Lord Murugan. The procession is also accompanied by live music played by urumi melam (traditional drum) groups.

Where is it usually held?
Photograph: Lawrence Wee/Shutterstock

Where is it usually held?

Pre-Covid-19, the procession usually takes place between Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road and Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road, with some lanes closed to traffic for the occasion. Devotees will walk for about 4.5-kilometre, along with relatives and friends who chant hymns and prayers to support and encourage them.

Where to celebrate Thaipusam in 2021?

  • Things to do
  • Raffles Place

This year, The Arts House has planned something slightly different in celebration of Thaipusam. Instead of the streets, it's taking the thanksgiving festival to the digital space with the multidisciplinary audio-visual-text experience Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk. Through a web app, you can follow the virtual edition of the festival’s pilgrimage route which includes the historic neighbourhoods of Little India, Selegie and Fort Canning, and discover its cultural significance along the way.

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple
  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites
  • City Hall

Dedicated to Lord Murugan, Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (also known as Chettiars’ Temple) was built in 1859 and is one of Singapore’s oldest temples and stands as a living testimony to the Chettiars’ contributions to Singapore’s colonial economy. Its roof has also caught the attention of many, with 48 intricately etched glass panels angled to capture the sparkle of the rising and setting sun.

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  • Things to do
  • Chinatown

Oddly enough, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore is smack in the middle of Chinatown. It was built – as a humble shed – in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, the first recorded Indian immigrant to enter colonised Singapore – he travelled with Raffles from Penang. Completed in 1863, it’s famous for its staggeringly detailed gopuram (tower gateway), covered with sculptures of deities and mythological beasts.

  • Things to do

Despite the lack of colourful procession taking place this year, you can still enjoy the vibrant sights, sounds and smell of Little India with so many nooks to explore. The vibrant ethnic enclave has a tantalising blend of restaurants dishing out traditional South Asian dishes, buildings stamped with contemporary street art (check out Artwalk Little India), and age-old temples like the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.

More cultural enclaves to explore

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