Thaipusam: A Walk with God

2 Feb

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Hello there Dear Readers, I am back! After a wonderful self-imposed break from blogging, I am now recharged and inspired with lots of wonderful stories to tell you and recipes to share.

In order to kick-off The Travelling Chopsticks for 2014, I have the perfect post to share with you- the Hindu festival of Thaipusam! I have to admit, I am really excited about putting this post together as I feel it is not only an interesting topic but a unique festival which can only be experienced in a few countries around the world!

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However, I must warn you that Thaipusam is considered a form of extreme devotion, as it involves self mortification of the flesh (in other words there are a lot of piercings and hooks involved!), in fact the festival itself is banned in India making Malaysia and Singapore one of the main countries that still practices Thaipusam today.

So if you are slightly squeamish when it comes to piercings etc this post may not be for you….but don’t worry, I will soon post a wonderful feel good post about a falcon hospital I visited in Abu Dhabi last month!

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Thaipusam is an annual Hindu festival that is celebrated by the ethnic Tamil communities of South Asia. The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the Tamil month ‘Thai’ and the word for  star ‘Pussam’. The month of Thai encompasses both January and February and Thaipusam is celebrated on different days every year, depending on when the star is at its highest point.

According to Tamil legend (and please forgive me if I have it wrong, as it is a rather confusing story) there were two types of supernatural creatures in the world who were always battling one another. The Asuras and the Devas. The Asuras are said to be beings of moral and social things (such as truth and marriage) where as the Devas are said to be beings of natural things (like the sun and the rain). Repeatedly the Devas were unable to resist the onslaught of the Asuras forces, so one day in despair they turned towards the Supreme God Shiva, and pleaded with him to send them an able leader so they might be able to defeat the Asuras. In exchange the Devas promised to pray and surrender themselves completely to Shiva.

Shiva granted the Devas their wish by creating the warrior Skanda, whom upon creation assumed leadership of the celestial forces and finally defeated the Asuras. To recognise that special day in history, the people created the festival Thaipusam in honour of the warrior Skanda (who confusingly by the way, seems to go by many different names!).

Today, Skanda is considered the vanquisher of evil and the universal granter of wishes, and Thaipusam is an opportunity for devotees to ask for favours from Skanda, fulfil a vow in return for a granted favour, or to repent for past sins. In order to implore help from Skanda the devotee must carry a Kavadi, which is a physical burden of some sort, and perform the Kavadi dance during Thaipusam to emphasize their debt bondage to Skanda.

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On the festival day, the devotees will undertake a pilgrimage along a set route, carrying their Kavadis. In Singapore the route is a 4km stretch that starts off in Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and will finally end up on Tank Road at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple where they will give their offerings.  The Kavadi which represent the physical burden of the devotee can be as simple as carrying a jug of milk on your head to the more elaborate Vel Kavadi which is essentially a portable alter that can be up to 2 meters tall and as heavy as 20 – 30kg.

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However, what makes these alters a true testament to physical burden is that the entire Vel Kavadi is balancing on the chest and back with 108 spokes sticking or piercing into the skin of the devotee. Fire walking and mortification of the flesh is also common practice during Thaipusam, where by spears and weighted hooks are pierced through the skin. Some believe that the more pain and suffering a devotee bestows on himself the greater his dedication is towards Skanda.  Spears that are pierced through the tongue and cheeks impede speech and thus force the devotee to fully concentrate at the task on hand.

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Those who have vowed to carry a Kavadi during Thaipusam, start preparing for the pilgrimage 48 days prior to the festival. The Kavadi bearers perform elaborate ceremonies and cleanse themselves through constant prayer and fasting. During this 48 day period the devotees must observe celibacy, consume one vegetarian meal a day, sleep on the floor without a mattress and of course continuously pray to Skanda.

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The night before Thaipusam the Kavadi bearers and their family will gather at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, they will pray and chant and prepare the Kavadis. The devotees claim that they enter a trance like state and feel no pain during the piercings and the subsequent pilgrimage. It is believed that those who have been disciplined during their 48 day preparation, will not bleed and their wounds will not leave any scars.

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Supporters and family members will then follow the Kavadi bearers on their pilgrimage drumming and chanting to keep up the moral and encourage the bearers to complete their route. Once they have reached Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, their pilgrimage is over, and they are led to a large dismantling tent, where the Vel Kavadi is slowly taken off and all the worshipers can enjoy their first meal of the day.

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In a country such as Singapore that is better known for its modernity, efficiency and strict regulations, it is wonderful to see such strong traditions and culture, not only alive but also thriving in this city state.  It is an experience like no other, and one that the anthropologist in me finds fascinating. The devotion and dedication displayed to their god Skanda is awe inspiring and is a true testament to the human spirit and capability.

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3 Responses to “Thaipusam: A Walk with God”

  1. SugarFreeSweety February 2, 2014 at 13:18 #

    wow, this is interesting, but i´m not sure I could handle seeing this in person. Thank you for posting this! :)

    • The Travelling Chopsticks February 2, 2014 at 13:39 #

      It really is an amazing experience! Although I have to admit the photos seem far more powerful compared to actually being there. I guess there is so much going on – sights, sounds, smells that you can’t really take it all in, and it is only when you sit down and study the photos where you really get to see all the details! If you are ever in Malaysia or Singapore during Thaipusam, you really should take a look :)

      • SugarFreeSweety February 2, 2014 at 14:07 #

        It sounds like something worth planing a trip to see :)

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