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Thaipusam Penang 2007

Thaipusam is quite an experience for a non believer. As I wrote on my Pulau Pangkor website

Indian man with many bells on his bodyLast year I was on my bicycle in China, doing a journey from Kunming in Yunnan down south to Vientiane in Laos. My friend David, who is a Malaysian Indian invited me already then but I couldn't make it. This year it was different. David had just returned from a 40 days cycling journey in south India and was full of stories of his journey. It was a good moment to visit him.

I cycled the 135 km to his house in Nibong Tebal, about 40 km south of Penang. Together with his youngest two sons and his youngest daughter we left early in the morning of the 1st February to Penang.

As you know I live in Sitiawan and although quite a few Indians live here, as they do in Pangkor, the Thaipusam here is quite small. The biggest celebration is in Kuala Lumpur but I felt Penang was big enough for me.

What is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam is for the Indians the time to carry out acts of penance in fulfillment of vows made to the deity, Lord Muruga.

Thaipusam in MalaysiaMany people in Malaysia will take part of Thaipusam, Indians but also Chinese, even a few foreigners. Many come from all over to take part in "chariot" pulling where spikes and hooks are pierced into the body. Chariots are pulled to the temple.

It is a great atmosphere and you get to see devotees undergoing trances before they accept any piercing. It is safe, a great photo opportunity!


Celebrated In : Everywhere with a population of South Indians
Origin: Tamil Nadu
Deity worshipped : Lord Muruga
Kavadi contains : Rice, milk or other articles that the devotee has vowed to offer to Lord Muruga.

Hindus celebrate Thaipusam on the tenth month of their calendar. It coincides with the full moon at the end of January and beginning of February 'Thai'. "Thai" is the Hindu month which falls between January 15 to February 15. 'Pusam' refers to a star which is at its brightest during the period of this festival. Celebrated in all parts of the world where there is a concentration of South Indians.

Thaispusam in MalaysiaThaipusam celebrates the day Goddess Parvati bestowed upon her son the “vel” or lance to vanquish the evil demon, Soorapadam. This lance denotes spiritual insight, ability to differentiate right from wrong, righteousness and steadfastness. However, Thaipusam has come to mean the birthday of Lord Subramaniam, also known as lord Muruga, the younger son of Lord Shiva.

Usually the week before the even, Hindus prepare themselves by fasting, praying and observing austerities. Food will be vegetarian to cleans the body.

Kavadi (offering) carriers are devotees who have requested favors, have had the favor granted or wish to pay for past misdeeds. Usually, a vow is made to carry the kavadi for one, three, five or even seven years in succession. Common requests are recovery from illness, success in examinations or business or to beget progeny. Only a small number of women devotees pierce their bodies. Most of them carry pots of milk or a pair of coconuts slung across their shoulders instead.

Getting highTraditional musical instruments are played, and chants of "Vel, Vel" fill the air. These forms of offerings are overshadowed by more elaborate ones. The idea is the larger the kavadi the more resolute is one’s devotion. Skewers protruding through cheeks and metal hooks and spikes are also to be seen. This is a quaint evolution of the celebrations not found in Hindu Scriptures. Its origins are lost in antiquity.

Hinduism teaches that the body should not be harmed as the body is akin to a temple that the soul resides in. Some devotees however, choose to believe that the only way to salvation is to endure a penance of pain and hardship.

However, they are able to tolerate this ordeal of pain as they are in a trance-like state. There is no blood and they prepare themselves for this by undergoing specific rites during the preceding month. Austerities are followed and the body and soul disciplined to refrain from all forms of worldly activities. The devotees overcomes any form of pain as their minds are attuned to only one thing – spirituality and liberation from worldly desires.

Thaipusam 2007Once the devotees bath in the nearby river, they go into trance. Then the kavadi is placed on their shoulders or their body pierced before they walk from the river to the temple grounds and climb up the steps to the caves main temple high above.

On reaching, they lay down their kavadi and the milk or honey offering is poured on the statue of the deity as an act of thanksgiving, Those with hooks and skewers have a priest chant over them as the metal implements are removed and the wounds treated with hot ash.

Thaipusam in Penang 2007

David, his kids and me arrived in Penang where the crowds were already gathering. Some of the devotees were already working themselves up to a state of trance while bells and other items were attached to the body using hooks.

On the main street there were many stalls selling all kinds of things. This went from drinks, sweets and other snacks to other religious items and books. Nice copies of for example the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy books for Hindus were sold.

the stairs to the main temple Thaipusam 2007Many stalls had enormous loudspeakers blasting music at the highest possible volume. It didn't seem to matter if the sound was good or not as some of them had a very distorted sound.

Although it was still early, there were already many people around. Most of the visitors were Indians but there were also interested Chinese, a few foreigners and even a few Malays.

The whole event was excellent organized by the local authorities. Police directed cars to special parking places and when I climbed up to the main temple, I saw first aid service from the St. Ann's hospital, a Christian hospital, on the stairs to help those who had troubles.

Thaipusam 2007Although it was still early I had troubles to go up to the main temple. There were way too many people so I decided to cancel as I saw it would take a very long time to reach the temple. Instead I stayed for awhile on the stairs watching devotees climbing.

I found David back. He explained a few things about the Thaipusam. I asked him if he had ever done a Thaipusam but he explained he didn't believe enough to do so.

When I am writing this, a week after the Thaipusam, I can still smell the different smells of that day. David and I found us a good spot near the temple at the beginning of the stairs. From here we had a good view over the crowds. There was little noise then every once in while an announcement how much money was collected for the temple and a little bit of music.

Now the devotees who were actually doing a Thaipusam started to arrive. Some had sticks pierced through their cheeks, a few bells hanging on their body but others had a meter long and thick iron stick through their cheeks and had even coconuts pieced through the flesh.

For me as a non believer, it was a weird scene. I still do not understand how people can do this without any harm to the body. Over the whole day I have seen people being completely pierced but I haven't seen a single drop of blood.

Woman ready to offer at the Thaipusam 2007To my surprise not only Indians were performing a Thaipusam. A considerable amount of Chinese believers, David told me near Nibong Tebal there's a complete Chinese Hindu town. Two westerners also performed while being followed by a camera crew.

David and I went to a smaller building besides the temple to get some special prepared vegetarian food only prepared on this very day. There was a long row but it all went fast and we even could find a place to sit and enjoy our lunch of two different vegetarian dishes and excellent dhal.

There was very peaceful feeling the whole day and although especially in the main street it was extremely busy, no one was losing their cool, the devotees who were building up their trance could do this in peace (or sometimes in an enormous noise of the trance music).

Some Krishna devotees were singing and dancing and giving leaflets away.

While David, his children and me walked back through the main street, we saw a few of devotees who finished their Thaipusam. They looked tired but happy to have accomplished their tasks.

Although this Indian festival is in many ways quite alien to me, as a Dutchman, I felt deep respect for people performing here. All in all it was a life time experience for me.

A photo report of the Thaipusam 2007 can be read here

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