What and When is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is an annual festival in which millions of Hindu devotees across the world take part in one of the world’s most passionate spiritual celebrations. The celebration is held as a tribute to the Hindu God of War, Lord Murugan, honoured in sacred lore for slaying three evil demons in the name of good virtue. Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is, in fact, one of the major religious festivals in the country. It is also the biggest among the countries that celebrate Thaipusam. Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is held in most parts of the country but the largest gatherings are in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the Diwali celebration, Thaipusam is not a public holiday for the whole country but only in certain states.
At Thaipusam, parades and rituals are held across the country, with devotees performing ceremonial acts at different locations – the most famous being at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur where more than one million people gather on Thaipusam each year. Tourists flock to see the colours, noise and activities of Thaipusam.
Thaipusam is held each year during the full moon in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar – falling from mid-January to mid-February in the Gregorian calendar. In 2020, Thaipusam will begin on Saturday, February 8.
What to Expect during Thaipusam?
Chanting and drumming fill the air as thousands of devotees form large, chaotic, noisy processions and march from temples to worship areas.
Celebrations at Batu Caves are an amazing experience for tourists; yearly over 10.000 tourists visit the celebrations at the caves. It is said that well over a million people visit the Batu Caves during Thaipusam, so be prepared for a very crowded, hectic and sometimes even claustrophobic experience. At some points, it can be so crowded that people are pushing the masses to get forward. It is best to stay away from these crowds. The best place to get some great shots of the crowds is by walking towards the elevated highway.
Tourists are allowed to take photos and follow the procession, but keep in mind that some people anticipate Thaipusam all year! Don't get in the way of actual worshipers who are there for religious reasons. Also, keep in mind that participants have been preparing themselves for 48 days and fasting without any food for at least 24 hours prior to the festival.
The Kavadi Attam
Thaipusam is most remembered for the handful of worshipers who pierce their faces and bodies with swords, skewers, and hooks. Even walking on burning coals is sometimes a part of the festival. Heavy, artistic shrines known as kavadis (these are the burdens) are attached to volunteers with sharp skewers. The largest of the burdens, known as the vel kavadi, requires the person carrying it to be pierced by 108 small spears (vels)! Sometimes the contraptions are so large and heavy that several men have to offer assistance. The kavadis are then carried through the crowd until finally removed for prayers at a designated place.
Before being pierced, devotees are worked into a trance-like state with chanting and drums. Once entranced, the crowd helps to take care of them and leads them through the procession. Tongues are often pierced and pinned through the cheeks as a symbolic gesture of the volunteer giving up the gift of speech. The worshipers who pierce their tongues, cheeks and faces with sharp objects hardly bleed and report feeling very little pain! Many claim that their wounds heal nearly immediately and don't produce scars.
Not all devotees who take the pilgrimage will pierce their skin with hooks; many will just opt to carry a pot of milk, which serves as a symbol of fertility and abundance in the Hindu faith. Many Hindu devotees consider Thaipusam to be an expression of loyalty and allegiance between people and the deities. In a sense, it could be considered a form of thanksgiving to Lord Murugan for any prayers that he has answered.
In the early morning on the eve of the celebration, the Thaipusam procession will depart Sri Mahamariaman Temple with Lord Murugan's idol heading the procession. Hundreds of devotees carrying their kavadi or whatever form of sacrificial act that they opted for will go on this 9.5-mile procession, which is an 8-hour journey.
On arrival at Batu Caves temple, a prayer ceremony will be held at the foot of the caves. The Batu Caves temple is very unique and is an attraction of its own, even outside the Thaipusam celebration day. The temple is sited in one of the biggest caves and to reach it, they need to climb the 272 steps.
Devotees carrying their offering will climb these 272 steps and offer their prayer. Those who had their body pierced with skewers and hooks will have them removed whilst the priest chant over them. Amazingly enough, there will not be a drop of blood and the wounds that will be treated with hot ash, will not leave any scar!
Traditionally, participants in the festival will offer Lord Murugan their gifts in the form of orange and yellow flowers and fruits while wearing similarly-colored clothing. There are multiple offerings made to a great number of many different shrines, though the Batu Caves hold the most popular shrines of all.