Thaipusan Hindu Festival
Thaipusan - My own detour to an incredible Hindu Festival in Malaysia
The Thaipusan (also Thaipusam) Festival is dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan.The festival is celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan/Feb).
Lord Muruga(n) is the son of the God Shiva and his consort Parvati.
Lord Murugan was created to destroy the manifestations of absolute evil
that had taken over the world (demons or Asura).
The festival celebrates the time he (Lord Murugan) was given the Sakti Vel (electric spear) to accomplish the task.
I was privileged to witness this festival not once but twice while I lived in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. The temple at Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur, has attracted one million plus devotees and many thousand tourists The procession to the caves begins at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple ( in Chinatown), and continues 15 kilometers to the caves. This is an 8-hour journey that ends in a climb up a flight of 272 steps to the caves.
Thaipusan: Hindu Mythology, Definitions and a Brief Description
Before I tell you about my first experience at Thaipusan, I think that in order to understand this festival better, a little Hindu mythology, a few definitions and an abbreviated description of the process of the festival itself may help.
Thaipusan (which has a few spellings) falls on the full moon day of the 10th Tamil month Thai when the constellation Pusam, the star of well being rises over the eastern horizon.
The Thaipusan Festival is dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan. Lord Muruga(n) is the son of the God Shiva and his consort Parvati. Lord Murugan was created to destroy the manifestations of absolute evil that had taken over the world (demons or Asura). The festival celebrates the time he (Lord Murugan) was given the Sakti Vel (electric spear) to accomplish the task. The Vel is a symbol of spiritual power or spear of knowledge. It was the instrument used to re-establish cosmic harmony. There was an epic battle between Lord Murugan and Surapadman (the evil force). At the end of a six day battle, Lord Murugan split Surapadman in half with the Vel. Surapadman took the shape of a peacock and a rooster and Lord Murugan tamed them with a loving glance. They (the rooster and the peacock) became the emblems of his standard.
Another time, Siva asked a sage to take two hills to South India to become seats of worship. The sage commissioned Itampa, (a demon/ Asura) to take them. Itampa tied them to a shoulder pole with sacred serpents. When Itampa got tired, he sat down to rest. When he stood again to go on, he found the hills would not move. He went to the top of the hill and found a youth had claimed them as his own. Itampa fought for them and was killed. Lord Murugan brought him back to life. Itampa then requested that he would forever remain the gatekeeper for Murugan. It is believed that the carrying of kavadis is the re-enactment of what happened (the mountains attached to the pole) and that just as the Asura Itampa was relieved of his ignorance, they will also assume the burden of divinity.
At this point, I guess it might be helpful to address the why.
Why would and why does anyone want to do this?
Asking for God's intervention-Kevadi means burden
Think of the times you have said in one way or another, "God, if only....I promise I will...." The why begins when a person asks intervention or assistance to help in an aspect of everyday life. The request of help may be to overcome illness, mend a family rift, become pregnant, or to have a successful pregnancy. They kavadi carrier has requested a favor, had a favor granted or has a wish to make amends for past sins. Whatever the request has been, it in turn becomes a vow to God that with his help they will carry Kavadi. Keep in mind that the bargain to carry kavadi can be for 1, 3, 5 and even 7 years in a row.
Kavadi literally means burden. The burden however can take many forms. A kavadi can be something as simple as pot of milk (paal kudam) carried on the head to be given as an offering to Murugan. Many kavadi are a simple wooden arch that has been decorated. The large kavadis can weigh close to 40 kilos. They are often decorated with peacock feathers and have a picture of Murugan on them. They are in fact miniature shrines. What sets these shrines apart however is that they are anchored to the body with a metal belt. Hanging down from the kavadis are chains with hooks at the end. The hooks are inserted into the body. Some may have steel poles coming down that pierce the body. At the extreme are those that are pulling a cart behind them with ropes attached to the hooks in their back.
Many people are pierced with two Vels (spears) one through the tongue
and one through the cheeks. These can also be various sizes. The Vels
symbolize that the pilgrim has renounced the gift of speech in order to
concentrate more fully on the deity, that the pilgrim has passed under
the protection of the deity (Lord Murugan) who will not let them suffer
pain. The Vel is seen in many sizes.
Devotees with VelsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Preparation and the pilgramage to Batu Caves
At midnight on Thaipusan Eve, the murthi (image) of Murugan is taken from a temple in central Kuala Lumpur and place on a silver chariot along with the golden Vel. The chariot is then carried the 10 kilometers to Batu Caves, Murugan's home. Close to 150,000 people will walk with the chariot as it makes its way through the city. Early dawn marks the arrival of the chariot and the installation of the murthi and the presentation of the golden Vel. The Vel is taken to the shrine in the cave and the power to transform is symbolically transferred to the cave. It is here that Lord Murugan waits to receive the devotees. The pilgrims meet at various sites on Thaipusan Eve for final preparation of the journey the following day. Dressed in red and yellow (colors associated with Lord Murugan) the devotees enter the last of the purification rites. One by one the devotees are called before the group leader, they are asked if they understand what they are about to undertake. A yellow string is wrapped around their wrist and from that point on they may not leave the designated area until they are fitted with their kavadi.
The first morning of Thaipusan
On Thaipusan morning, the final pre-kavadi rituals begin with a purification bath. Fully clothed, the pilgrim uses three bucket/dippers of runner water and pours them over his/her head. Then they are marked with the holy ash. At this point the pilgrim is put into a trance. While concentrating on the deity (Lord Murugan), the family and friends that have gathered to accompany the pilgrim wave incense in their facechanting Vel-vel (spear-spear) or Arooga (Praise the lord). Once the pilgrim has passed into a trance state, first the Vel is pierced through the tongue and cheek followed by the fitting of the kavadi and the hooks or needles are inserted. Surrounded by family and friends, who create a protective ring around them, the pilgrim begins their final journey to the caves. The escort is there to urge them on with chanting and incense. When the bridge over the nearby river is crossed, it symbolizes the final stage of the journey. They pass into the complex gates as they make their way to the 272 stairs and their ascent to the temple. Once they reach the main shrine inside the cave, the offerings of milk are poured over the Golden Vel, the pilgrim supplicates before the murthi of Lord Murugan, the kavadi and hooks are removed by the spiritual leader and the pilgrim is brought out of the trance.
Where do I look next?Click thumbnail to view full-size
If someone had told me when I watched a National Geographic
special about a Malaysian Hindu Festival called Thaipusan that
a year later I would be standing in the middle of that same
festival surround by a million or so of my closest friends,
I would have told them in no uncertain terms they were nuts.
Stepping out of my comfort zone.
The statement would have been given in the emphatic for multiple reasons. The most important reason is that I am claustrophobic. I do not like large masses of humanity, close spaces or the feeling I have lost control with no escape. On occasion I force myself to step out of my safety zone and do something that helps me keep this in check. Up until now, that would have been something relatively safe and quick. Going through a blackout tube at a water park has generally been good for me. I can scream, close my eyes and know that in less than a minute I will have survived. NEVER, I thought, would I consciously choose to place myself in the middle of a mass of humanity in extreme heat. The thought of me in the middle of a million people moving at the same time in a space that ends at a limestone wall and 272 stairs to a cave (read more claustrophobia) in temperatures at the least in the mid 90s makes my palms sweat and my heart race.
I can't tell you exactly what it was that made me make the choice to
face my fears and head down the road. I do try to live by my motto,
Life is an adventure - Take detours.
This would definitely qualify as a major detour!
National Geographic and Stomach Flips
The special on National Geographic was also very adept at showing close ups of people with their bodies pierced with which were in turn attached to massive structures which in turn were being carried not a small distance. I have to admit I am not a big fan of body piercing. I have issues with tongue piercing, nipple piercing......you get the picture. I could not begin to understand the desire to choose to do this to one's self. Watching as a man pulled a cart by ropes attached to the hooks in his back left my stomach doing cartwheels.
Well, there I was in Malaysia. Since my arrival, various taxi drivers and other Indians had told me about the Thaipusan Festival. Oh yes, I told them I had seen it on TV. Oh no, I was told that you had to see it for yourself. I had months to talk about this and every time I did, the vision of a million people would pass across my eyes and wham, racing heart and sweaty palms. This was followed by the other intense visual of a back with massive hooks attached and skin being pulled to the limit. Instant stomach flips.
Look over there!Click thumbnail to view full-size
I do believe that knowledge is the only way to understand cultural differences. Then of course the ultimate photo opportunity was mentioned, and before I knew it, I had arranged to go with a friend that has lived here many years. No way out. Arghhh another claustrophobic phrase......
Entering the Festival Grounds
Saturday morning presented us with overcast skies. Not the best conditions for photographs, but a plus for the festival goers. 93 degrees and overcast with a million people is somewhat comforting. Since Batu Caves, the location of the Hindu temple and Thaipusan Festival is about 12 kilometers from my house, before I had a chance to change my mind I was parking the car under the flyover 4 blocks from the temple. Makeshift parking lots were established as an instant money maker by enterprising Indians. You paid them to make sure they didn't call a tow truck. Works for me! As we made our way toward the temple I was first struck by the families making their way along with us. From babies to the grandparents they were dressed in their finest clothes. Food and water stands appeared. I started getting into the festival mode. About a block from the temple, I happened to glance toward a canopy with a "barbershop" underneath. However, only one style of haircut was being offered. Heads were being shaved! I realized I was looking at a woman with one half of her head shaved. The other half of her head still held hair almost waist length. I watched stunned as that too fell away. There were two barbers and two lines of willing customers. Things were starting to get interesting.
My first glimpse inside the festival gates, a moment of panic and then, awe
Less than a minute later, I had my first glimpse of the Lord Murugan statue. At 140 feet tall and gold, it was easy to see. What nearly froze me in place was the sea of heads moving as one directly behind Lord Murugan. We were almost there. Directly in front of us, the crowd became noticeably bigger. The sounds of a loudspeaker, Indian music and drums combined with the increasing hum of voices and chanting. We rounded the corner and there was no turning back. We were moving directly toward the sea of humanity inside the temple grounds. It was then that I saw the first Kavadi.
There I was at the edge of panic, having entered into my own little "Twilight Zone." When I saw that first kavadi and saw the size of it, my camera came out and for awhile, everything I saw was from the viewfinder. The sea of humanity became human. Blurs became faces and faces became stories. The overwhelmingly loud sounds often retreated to a faint buzz as I moved my camera and focused in on something and someone else. When I would take the camera away for a moment it was almost disorienting to see that I was surrounded by the masses.
There was a center pathway that the pilgrims would make their way down to reach the steps going up to the temple. Separating the bystanders on either side were gates. We joined the center pathway and positioned ourselves against a lamp post. That lamp post was often my salvation. Waves of people would come through and you could feel the energy pulsating around you. I could understand how one could get "caught up" in the moment. I would take my camera down to see a wall of people approaching and I would retreat to my pole and wait for a break. It seemed impossible to see everything. Pilgrims were continually approaching, sometimes with only one or two family members, other times with upwards of 40-50 people surrounding them. And everywhere were the cameras.
A Family FestivalClick thumbnail to view full-size
This is a family event
I saw families with their heads shaved covered in an ochre colored chalk like substance painted on. I later found out that this is a way of giving thanks for the birth of the first child. I saw young girls carrying pails of milk which I have been told is often to ask for blessings in finding a husband. There were men whose eyes were focused on something far away from the crowd. Women were helped by their husbands, husbands helped by their wives. Person after person went by, many barefooted. Often you would see anklets and bracelets of bells. The bells are to make music for God.
Pulling a cart with baby on board
At times an entire front group would herald the arrival of a rather large or extreme kavadi. These groups would be dressed alike with t-shirts representing the person they were supporting in their pilgrimage. It was the arrival of a group with drums and their own speaker system that was drumming and chanting, "Vel-Vel" and "Arooga", that sent the crowd rushing to look at the man pulling a good sized cart. The skin on his back was pulled taut by the large hooks attached to the chains which in turn were attached to the cart. There was not a tear or a drop of blood on his back. What garnered the attention though was the baby lying on the cart the man was pulling. When I asked I was told the baby was four months old and this was the acknowledgement of the birth. I went forward to take a few pictures and as I tried to get around the mass of people, the mass started to move. Before you could blink we were surrounded and moving. OK, I have to admit, there was a moment of panic when I realized the only place I was going was forward. I fixed my eyes on the white blouse of my friend in front of me and told her to get us out as soon as she could. Soon wasn't soon enough for me. Suddenly all the sounds around me were amplified. The loud speaker and the chanting made my ears ring. The temperature around me soared with the combined body heat. Then there was the smell I had not noticed until then. Soured milk, sweaty bodies, food, incense.....my head was spinning. Annie made a quick move to the right as the movement slowed and I was able to breathe again.
Pulling the cart and moreClick thumbnail to view full-size
Rest and Joy
The kavadi bearers carrying the heavy loads often stop and sit on stools provided by the family as they wait for the next surge forward. We made it out of the pilgrimage line to the relative safety of the other side. I picked up my camera again and focused on the face of a man in silent prayer to Lord Murugan. His face was joyful as he faced the statue. As I clicked his picture and set my camera down, he saw me and smiled. He looked at his son sitting with a large kavadi on his shoulders and told me it was his son's first pilgrimage. He told me that he could no longer carry one since he had broken his leg, but he had walked in support of his son. We were close now to the steps that his son would walk with the kavadi. I looked up and could see another kavadi resting on the steps ahead. I couldn't help but think of the line, "stairway to heaven". I looked at those stairs and said there was no way I could do that with that many people. I will return soon to walk the steps to the shrine, but I had stretched my limit with claustrophobia for the day.
Just when we thought we had seen enough, another movement of people
would reveal another face, another shrine. We made our way back up to
our postand spent another hour watching and taking pictures before
the heat finally forced us to move toward home.
How far would you go to fulfill a "Dear God if only" promise!?
Every year thousands of Hindu's fulfill a promise made to God for a blessing requested and received. How far would you go to fulfill the "Dear God if only" prayer that escapes the lips so easily? Would you shave your head? Would you walk miles barefoot carrying an offering of milk to your God? Would you pierce your body with hooks and pull a cart by the chains attached to them as a promised kept? Each person that fulfills a personal promise at the Thaipusan Festival has devotion that I was not prepared to witness.
Almost thereClick thumbnail to view full-size
Sometimes I take pictures to record a memory, other times I take pictures to record beauty. On this day I was recording both of those, but at some point, I realized I was taking pictures of faith. I was looking into the eyes of love. I think the close up lens of the camera allowed me to focus on something I may have missed had I been merely a bystander. Through my camera lens, I saw faith in the eyes and goal of the pilgrims and love in the eyes of family and friends intent on helping someone attain their goal. I have never seen in my life such an affirmation of faith in such a graphic way. It is difficult to describe, but I could feel that faith. I was not just seeing faith in action; I felt it through the pores of my skin.
These are the detours in life that remain a part of you forever.
How far would you go in your faith to give thanks?
Hopefully by now you have read about Thaipusan and my experience. Has your view shifted since you opened my lens? Are you revolted? Do you have a bit more understanding?
Is Thaipusan a true example of faith or just plain crazy?
Now I have your interest don't I?
Hopefully I have scratched the surface of your interest in Thaipusan, Malaysia and Hindu Festivals. Ready to step out of your comfort zone? Read all about it!
Just and FYI and a reminder please..
All of these photos were taken by me
Please respect my copyright!
I hope in some way this lens has educated, explained or entertained you as an armchair traveler.
A hello and/or comment is always welcome!