Thaipusam Festival - Penang, Malaysia

Thaipusam is considered one of the most important festivals amongst Hindus in Malaysia and Singapore. The word Thaipusam comes from the word ‘thai’, meaning tenth, and on the day when the moon passes through the star “Pusam”.

It is celebrated during the full moon of the tenth month in the Hindu calendar, usually in the month of January or February. The biggest celebrations in Malaysia are held in Kuala Lumpur and Penang and I chose Penang for my visit in 2017.

This is a festival of penance and prayers and is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the god of power and virtue. According to legend, the festival is to celebrate the feats of Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam). He is the Hindu god of war, is the son of Parvati and Shiva, brother of Ganesha, and a God whose life story has many versions in Hinduism. It is said that it was on Thaipusam when he appeared before his believers on a peacock after triumphing over the evil asuras (demons) who were attacking the devas (celestial beings). 

This is why today’s celebrations focus on Lord Murugan’s statue as it’s decorated, placed in a chariot and taken on a procession through Penang to the hill top Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Waterfall Temple).

The first day is focussed on the procession of the gold and silver chariot that are pulled through the streets of Penang’s popular area of Georgetown to the Waterfall Temple. 

Traditionally, there has only been one Penang Thaipusam silver chariot. The introduction of the new golden chariot was controversial as the silver chariot has been exclusively used for over a century. Some Hindus felt excluded because they were not members of the Chettiar caste. Both chariots leave the respective temples long before sunrise and make their way along the 6.5km procession route to the Waterfall Temple. Normally this takes around 13-14 hours but due to the surge in devotees this year and complications with the leaving times, this year it took 22 hours!

The roads leading to and from the temples, where the procession begins and ends, are closed to vehicles during Thaipusam and covered with smashed coconuts. The coconuts are a ritual done to ‘break one’s ego’ and is an act of purification.

The second day is focussed on the devotees making the long pilgrimage to the waterfall temple: a gruelling barefoot walk on the melting concrete through blistering heat. All whilst carrying a Kavadi (burdens). There are several types of kavadi (‘sacrifice at every step’ in English) that are carried and are done so to show their devotion to Lord Murugan. It is a form of penance so to repent for their sins. Some devotees bear the colourful and elaborately decorated home-made frames. These frames can weigh as much as 100 kilograms and are typically attached to a person’s body using sharp metal spikes dug into the skin. Equally as wince inducing are the body mortifications, the self-sacrifice of piercing the skin with silver skewers that symbolise the Vel given to Murugan by his mother Parvati, or with hooks from which they hang fruits or bowls of milk that are seen as offerings to their deity. Others have spears through their cheeks and tongues to show that the kavadi-bearer sacrifices the gift of speech and can focus more on their worship.

Devotees claim to experience no pain and it is said that they enter a trance-like state that elevates them from physical discomfort. Despite the gaping holes, they do not bleed from their piercings and have wounds that heal perfectly, leaving no scars. 

The third and final day is simply the reverse of day one where the chariots and procession make their way back down to the town.