There is nothing quite like experiencing the Tamil festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia. During the Tamil month of “Thai” (usually late January/early February), for three exciting days, the air is filled with hypnotic rhythms of pulsating percussion and cries of “Vel-Vel!”, meant to cheer on the dancing masses of kavadi bearers as they haul their symbolic burdens and offerings for Lord Murugan.
Sacred scents of rose water and incense hang in the humidity, while crowds queue in front of bubbling vats of vegetarian curries, snacks, and cold drinks at concession stalls, lining the parade routes. Bull-drawn chariots carry the Vel (Lord Murugan’s spear) across town, bestowing blessings before reaching their destination. For the last leg of the journey, barefoot believers climb sun-scorched steps to auspiciously perched temples, such as Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Batu Caves--where offerings of milk are poured on Murugan’s shrines, symbolic wordly “burdens” are removed, and the spell-like trances of the devoted are broken, while others break into sporadic dance and spiritual “possession”. The magic of Thaipusam is contagious, and a feast for all senses.
Friends had recently convinced me to go check out Penang’s Thaipusam procession--and I’m glad I did! Like any tradition that has landed on Penang’s shores, Thaipusam has its own unique history and flavor. The ancient festival has its roots in Southern India, but has been exported around the world by the Tamil people--one of India’s largest diaspora groups--and has since walked its own path, becoming a celebration of spiritual dedication and an expression of Penang’s own unique community pride. Here are five unmissable Thaipusam experiences that will take you into the heart and soul of this very special island community!
1) Chasing the Chariots: A Cross-town, Cross-cultural Experience
Follow one of the bull-drawn chariot processions as they wind through the streets of Penang and you’ll begin to understand what it is that makes this place so special: the people! Mingling with the thousands of Hindu devotees, you’ll find that Penangites all seem to be partaking in the festivities, regardless of religious or ethnic background. You’ll come across miniature mountains of coconuts bearing small signs with the names of local Chinese-owned businesses; you’ll see both Indian and Chinese Penangites approaching chariots with colorful trays of offerings and receiving blessings--and you’ll even spot a few Chinese Penangites undertaking the sacred kavadi rituals. Since Lunar New Year and Thaipusam usually happen within a few weeks of each other, it’s also not uncommon to see Chinese lion dance troupes and Thaipusam chariots greet each other at any given stretch of road, while Tamil drums and Chinese firecrackers seem to erupt in unison--a soundtrack to a cross-section of one of the world’s true melting pots.
2) Smashing Coconuts
Winding up and pitching a plump coconut into the hot black asphalt along Jalan Dato Keramat is one of Thaipusam’s signature rituals, carried out by Penangites with much gusto! Truckloads of hulled coconuts are stacked in pyramids along the chariot’s path, before being blessed, set ablaze, and frantically smashed in the streets in a blur of flying tropical shrapnel and coconut water. Like many traditions, the exact meaning of the coconut-smashing may depend upon whom you ask--but the consensus is that the coconut symbolizes the ego, and shattering the ego exposes our inner spiritual purity, an act of humility before Lord Murugan.
3) Bearing the Burdens
One of the most sacred devotional acts during Thaipusam is carrying a kavadi, or “burden”, a ritual of profound spiritual dedication and humility. Meant to symbolise a burden or hardship that the bearer is struggling to release, kavadi can be anything from a portable shrine built from bamboo poles decorated with peacock feathers and images of Murugan, to piercing the skin of one’s torso, cheeks, and forehead with symbolic adornments such as fruit, hooks, and miniature Vel (Murugan’s spear). To some, the piercings signify the mortal chains that bind the soul - ego, desire and ignorance - while to others, the pain is offered as a sacrifice to Lord Murugan in return for divine blessing. In preparation, participants begin with month-long vegetarian diet and periods of abstinence and fasting before Thaipusam. When the date of the festival finally arrives, the devotees begin their final purification processes, surrounded and supported by family and friends--an intimate scene of connection and camaraderie among the kavadi bearers and their communities.The sheer emotion and determination that this scene elicits cannot be conveyed fully in pictures alone--it has to be experienced first hand.
4) Joining the Journey
Thaipusam in Penang is open to everyone--locals, visitors, those making the pilgrimage, and supportive onlookers--are all welcome, and this is what gives Penang’s festivities a more “local” flavor. When devotees begin their long journey towards Penang’s Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (commonly called Waterfall Temple), with heavy burdens in tow, you can feel a palpable sense of excitement across the island. The cheering, the furious percussion of the Tamil drummers, and the speakers blaring electronic music with thumping Tamil time-signatures, all seem to drive the procession onwards as the crowds of barefoot devotees, chariot-pullers, groups of friends from around the town, wind their way together along the tree-shaded boulevards covered in broken coconuts. Suddenly, kavadi bearers break out into entranced spells of dance (kavadi attam), followed by intense exhaustion, looking as if they won’t be able to go on--but to witness their steely determination and devotion is an awe-inspiring sight to behold! Thaipusam is an unstoppable river, and it’s hard not to get swept up in its colorful current!
5) Stairway to the Heavens
At the end of the road, everyone will ascend the 512 grueling, sun-scorched steps carved into the flank of the hill to reach the Waterfall Temple, where rituals to honour Lord Murugan are conducted and the devotees can finally lay down the burdens they have carried, at the feet of their deity. A spectacular view extending across the breezy Straits to the mountains of Kedah rewards the weary travelers, and if hungry, you can also take part in the ceremonial meal in the well-shaded food hall. Piles of rice and curry are doled out onto fresh banana leaves to replenish energies after such a grueling walk. Food, of course, is central to any sacred celebration, and in Penang, its one of the most sacred expressions of community; sitting down to share a meal and some small talk--whatever language it’s in (Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay, English, usually a mixture)--is so very Penang, isn’t it?
If you want to learn more about Penang's arts and culture, check out our post on the Hungry Ghost Festival