The Spectacular Thaipusam Celebration in Malaysia
Thaipusam Celebration in Malaysia:
This may come as a surprise to many people, but the world's biggest and most colorful Thaipusam is celebrated in Batu Caves, Malaysia.
This is a limestone outcrop just north of Kuala Lumpur and also the site of prominent Hindu temple and shrine.
What Is Thaipusam
Thaipusam is a holy festival celebrated by Hindus of Tamil origin from South India, as a thanksgiving to their deity, Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Muruga). It is perhaps the most elaborate and spectacular of all the Hindu festivals, mainly due to the combination of what seems like a painful body piercing and a religious practice.
Hindu Celebrations and Festivals
Hindu celebrations and festivals such as Thaipusam and Diwali celebration, are celebrated not only in India but also in countries where there are major concentrations of Tamils such as in Malaysia and Singapore. Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is, in fact, one of the major religious festivals in the country. It is also the biggest among the countries that celebrate Thaipusam, including India.
Thaipusam Rites and Rituals
Devotees who have made their vows and prayers to Lord Subramaniam will subject themselves to sacrificial acts in exchange for an answered prayer. The devotees have, in the past asked for help, such as to get well or to recover from their sickness, seeking forgiveness for past misdeeds, childless couple asking for baby etc. In return, they proposed to do a sacrificial act if the request is fulfilled. This sacrificial act could be carrying kavadi weighing several pounds which is attached to the body by skewers and hooks, that pierce through the body. (see photo above). This is usually undertaken by the really serious Thaipusam pilgrims and is usually by men.
Other Forms of Doing Penance
For the Thaipusam festival, not every devotee will carry the kavadi, some may go for a 'simpler' form of sacrificial act like piercing skewers to tongues and cheeks (see photo below).
Shaving the head, (especially for the children, see photo far below), carrying pots of milk (by the women folks) giving foods and drinks to devotees, and providing other essential services, are also another form of penance that can be observed.
The Thaipusam Procession
The Thaipusam procession from one temple to another main temple (varies according to region) could be three miles or even longer. Family members and supporters will be following the devotees during this procession , chanting prayers and offering encouragement.
Brief Information on Kavadi
Types of Kavadi
There are four types of kavadi and are as follows:
- Idumban Kavadi: Pots filled with milk and suspended on rods and carried on the shoulder
- Mayil Kavadi: Similar to Idumban kavadi except that it is decorated with peacock feathers
- Pal Kavadi: Metal pot filled with milk and carried on one side of the shoulder only
- Pushpa Kavadi: Pot filled with milk and carried on the head
Materials Used for Kavadi
Materials that are commonly used for kavadi are aluminum plates, wooden plates, nuts and bolts and peacock feathers. The design will vary according to the wishes of the kavadi bearers and with new creative designs mean uses of new materials. Kavadi made of polystyrene is popular in Ipoh and Penang while kavadi decorated with LED lights is popular in Ipoh.
The Thaipusam devotee who has taken the vow for Thaipusam celebration is required to cleanse themselves by undergoing at least a month of prayer, fasting and several series of strict physical and mental disciplines. These include a strict vegetarian diet and maintaining self-discipline such as abstinence from sex.
It is said that these will help put the devotees into a trance-like state that will prevent them from feeling the pain. It is also claimed that the piercing of skewers and hooks will not leave any scar.
Before the devotees use their respective kavadis, prayers will be conducted at their homes for a smooth procession of the kavadi.
Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia: the Event
Malaysia's population consists of many ethnic groups and Indian form part of this group. This multi-ethic, multicultural and multilingual society makes the country a melting pot of various cultures & religious festivals. Thaipusam is just one of these festivals.
Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is held in most part of the country but the largest gatherings are in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike Diwali celebration, Thaipusam is not a public holiday for the whole country but only in certain states.
In Kuala Lumpur, this three-day Thaipusam festival starts from the Sri Mahamariaman Temple in Chinatown and ends in Batu Caves, covering a distance of about 9.5 miles.
In the early morning on the eve of the celebration, the Thaipusam procession will depart Sri Mahamariaman Temple with Lord Muruga's idol, leading the procession. Hundreds of devotees, carrying their kavadi or whatever form of sacrificial act that they have opted for, will follow on this 9.5 mile journey, which takes about 8 hours to reach the destination.
Batu Caves Temple
On arrival at the destination, which is the Batu Caves temple, a prayer ceremony will be held at the foot of the caves. The Batu Caves temple is very unique and is an attraction of its own, even outside the Thaipusam celebration day. The temple is sited in one of the biggest caves and to reach it, you will need to climb the 272 steps (see photo below)
Devotees, carrying their offering, will climb these 272 steps, and offer their prayer in the temple. Those who had their body pierced with skewers and hooks will have them removed whilst the priest chant over them. Amazingly enough, there will not be a drop of blood and the wounds that will be treated with hot ash, will not leave any scar!
Thaipusam Celebration and Festival in Other Parts of Malaysia
Thaipusam Celebration in other parts of Malaysia is celebrated in most towns with a large Tamil community. The bigger celebration sites, outside Kuala Lumpur, are at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple in Penang, and Sri Subramaniar Temple in Gunong Cheroh, Ipoh, Perak (another cave site)
Bearing Kavadi by Other Ethnic Group
Although this does not happen every year, in Malaysia, you can see people of other ethnic groups and faiths, such as the Chinese and Caucasians bearing the kavadi.
More Thaipusam Celebration Photos
Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia: Advice and Tips for Visitors
If you intend to visit Malaysia for this event, it is advisable to make your travel booking early.
The celebration starts early at 5AM and usually goes on till night. So, be up early and bring your fully charged still and video cameras if you want to capture the full action of Thaipusam.
Admission to the celebration is free and every year the crowd keeps growing. With more than 1million devotees, supporters and visitors, you can get overwhelmed especially within the confined temple area. So be sure to carry some extra drinking water and food with you. Although all these are available at the sites, it is always best to have them with you, so as not to lose precious time.
If you are visiting the celebration at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, the best way is to take the commuter train from KL Sentral Station to Sentul Station. Buses and taxis are other options but with the heavy traffic and traffic diversions, it will be slower. Your hotel will be able to assist you on how to get to KL Sentral station or getting the buses or taxi, from your hotel.
If you are not able to make it for the Thaipusam celebrations this year, you can always plan for the following year. As I had mentioned earlier, Malaysia is rich in various religious and cultural festivals. You are bound to be in one of these festivals when you visit Malaysia.
Malaysia is also noted for the variety of foods from its many ethnic groups, that has made the country, a gourmet center. So come over, not just to savor the sights and sounds but also the flavor of Malaysia.