A Point Well Made: The Thaipusam festival in Penang

The religions in this world would not be so if they were without some redeeming quality. Why believe in something without the power of forgiveness? Everybody makes mistakes and to think yourself as doomed once one is made would plunge all believers into a ‘whats the point’ mentality making religion itself obsolete. Christianity has the confession, Islam the pilgrimage to Mecca, Buddhism: karma.

Hinduism has the festival of Thaipusam, an event unique in the world designed for absolution. In other religions, the act of asking for forgiveness is conducted with sombre, solemn self-deprecation rather than extrovert levels of dedication and celebration. This is not to say Thaipusam lacks seriousness, far from it as some go so far as mild mortification of the flesh but it does retain a celebratory feel rather than one of foreboding.

In Malaysia, Thaipusam is attended by its growing number of Tamil citizens… and the Chinese… and the Malays… and the expats, in fact by pretty much everyone- a common thing in a country so multi-culturally diverse. I was privileged to attend the festival in Penang-the quaint melting pot of Malaysia- where Tamils, Chinese, Malaysians and ex-pats swirl around each other along a set route from Little India in Georgetown to the jungle sanctuary on Penang Hill.

The procession begins early morning on the first day whereby Lord Murugan begins to celebrate his birthday by being loaded onto his bullock-drawn cart and transported from Mahamariamman Temple, Georgetown to Nattukkotai Chettiar Temple, foot of Penang Hill. For the remaining three days he will stay there basking in the reverence displayed by his devote followers handing out forgiveness and cancelling debt bondage, the idea being that if a favour asked amounts to indebtedness then the completion of Thaipusam has it cancelled. Think of it as paying off a loan. The bewildering celebratory feel seems to become more understandable.

Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati, plays a vital, and fearful, role in Tamil Hinduism as the God of War- a position of power and might bestowed upon him after his destruction of the evil demon Soorapadam. Murugan’s destruction of this daemon symbolizes the purification of human sin and humbling followers by curtailing any boisterous egos. Thaipusam is Murugan’s vehicle as devotees must worship Him over the three days unconditionally to attain forgiveness and cancel debt bondage.

Worship, reverence, veneration manifests itself through extreme symbolism during Thaipusam. After a month of preparing the body by fasting and dietary regulation devotees begin the pilgrimage while carrying burdens. At the most subdued level, the burden is represented by a metal pot of milk, sacred to Hindu’s the world over as a produce of the cow, or the carrying of a peacock feather. The feather is particularly interesting as it symbolizes the destruction of ego linking into the legend that when Murugan killed Soorapadam the daemon split in two, a cockerel and a peacock. The feather then represents the destruction of the egotistical tormenting nature of Soorapadam.

Even the ethnic Chinese practice the Indian celebration of Thaipusam.

On a more extreme level, however, physical exertion and mortification of the flesh are prominent. The kavadi (or burden) transforms into an ornamental weight carried on the shoulders and supports connected to the waist. The ornament towers above the head like layers of a wedding cake and decorated in bright colours, each with their own individual design. People dance around them, minders guide their way and when they feel energetic enough some even burst into a dance of their own, swinging the kavadi around in a low circle so that supporters duck and cheer. Following these, the streets alight with glee in congratulations and encouragement, the smell of Tiger balm hangs in the warm air as a constant comforter for the aching muscles

A full kavadi or vel kavadi (translated as spear/skewer burden), however, is a sight never to be forgotten. Two men with skewers through the cheeks, lips tongue, mini milk pots covering their torsos and hooks pulling at their backs passed by and a sudden shift in mood changed. Gone were the outrageous dancers, ecstatic smiles and drunken goodwill replaced by a more sombre, nervous, concerned feeling. The minders, friends and family, were no more dancing around them but worriedly checking the condition of their loved one evidently cautious about their well-being. Looking closer though, the vel kavadi appeared more and more with a mix and match effect so that the colourful familiarity was punctuated by subtle hints of individuality, identifying the person from the crowd. These mortifications are not meaningless as they symbolize the greatest level of supplication to Lord Murugan. The skewers represent His spear and His spear represents the purification of human ills so using these skewers and hooks on their body implies the purification of themselves.

Would I do it to absolve myself? No, although I did see a Western man coming back from the vel kavadi, the signs were obvious. Do I agree with it?…. It seems to me that if someone goes through that as payment for anything I would not argue whether they meant it or not. It seems to be a point well made.

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