TAIPUSAM: SPIKY DEVOTION
Among the multiple ethnic festivals observed in Singapore, Thaipusam may be the most striking, and even terrifying, to onlookers, with its deeply religious meaning remaining unknown to many.
The Thaipusam procession is the most impressive of the many festivals organised by the Hindu community in Singapore and one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations outside India. Dozens of fakirs1 who practice esoteric rituals that lead to a state of trance participate in the celebration, piercing their tongues, cheeks, chins and other parts of their bodies with long pins and sharpened daggers. It is a Hindu ceremony in honour of Lord Shiva, god of destruction and recreation.
Every year in January or February2, the procession of fakirs departs from the Perumal Temple on Little India's Serangoon Road and winds along a three-kilometre route to the Chettiar3 Temple on Tank Road. In 2012, Thaipusam falls on 7 February.
The festival is rooted in Hindu mythology and came to Singapore in the 19th century via south Indian immigrants (mostly Tamils). There are several myths explaining the origins of Thaipusam, connecting it with Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati. Also known as Subrahmanya, Murugan is the god of virtue, youth and power and destroyer of evil. The most popular legend claims that on this day the goddess Parvati presented her son with the vel, a magic lance containing her energy and power, to overcome the demon army and defeat evil.
It is a form of penance when male Hindu devotees walk barefoot carrying a heavy, semi-circular metal framework, or kavadi (from the Tamil kavathi meaning "burdens"), which is anchored to their flesh via small hooks. The practice is a way of thanking the Creator for fulfilling devotees' vows, a sort of Hindu thanksgiving celebration. At the end of the procession, the kavadi is placed at the altar of Lord Murugan and, together with the milk offering, they symbolise the cleansing of the mind and soul. It is also believed that the burden in the life of a devotee who carries a kavadi is lessened by Murugan.
Kavadi carrying is preceded by a period of prayer, a strictly vegetarian diet and celibacy to purify the soul.
Profusely adorned, kavadis, however, may only be decorated with religious and traditional items such as peacock feathers (the vehicle of Murugan), flowers, palm leaves, brass bells and religious photographs.
Devotees must make sure that their attire on that day does not sport football club emblems, skulls, skeletons or images of gods other than those of Hindu deities relevant to Thaipusam.
The height of any kavadi (inclusive of the height of its bearer) must be less than four metres tall when measured from the ground and less than 2.13 metres wide.
The cheeks and tongues of devotees are pierced with hooks, skewers and small vel lances, but since they are in a trance throughout the procedure, there is no bleeding and their ardent faith makes the pain tolerable.
Participants are not permitted to pierce their bodies with any form of hooks for others to pull or for objects, with the exception of lemons, limes and small metal paal kudams (milk pots) that may be hooked onto the body.
Many devotees pierce their tongue and cheek to symbolically give up their ability to speak and thus offer their full concentration to the Lord.
Other Types of Offerings during the Festival
There are many less obvious ways to please the gods during Thaipusam. Many people carry pal kavadis, milk jugs, on their heads to show their devotion to and love for Murugan.
Preparing food and offering drinks or any assistance to fellow devotees is also considered a way of fulfilling religious obligations.
One more way of doing penance, especially for children, is to shave one's head (and facial hair for others). The shaving is usually performed in special tents along the procession route.
Orange and yellow are the preferred dress colours as they are associated with Lord Murugan.
1 The fakir is an itinerant dervish, or Muslim or Hindu religious ascetic. Here and after comments by the author
2 The month of Thai in the Tamil calendar, hence the name of the celebration.
3 The Chettiar is a Hindu caste of merchants and bankers.
Text and photo Natalia Makarova
About the author: Natalia Makarova fulfils her passion for both Russia and Singapore working as Assistant Editor at 103rd Meridian East and Managing Director at Buyan, the first Russian restaurant and bar in Singapore.