Malaysia - Thaipusam Hindu Festival

Malaysia - Thaipusam Hindu Festival

There is nothing like leaping headfirst into a new cultural experience. Malaysia has many different festivals and cultural events and probably none is more unique than Thaipusam. Thai is the Hindu month which falls between January 15 to February 15 and Pusam refers to a start which is at its brightest during the period of this festival.

The festivities centered at Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur are one of the more spectacular and something that every visitor should experience at least once. Thaipusam is an exciting and thrilling spectacle but it also gets very crowded and claustrophobic and you need a lot of patience. It is celebrated in Malaysia on such a grand scale that easily dwarves the festivities in its place of origin - India. Celebrated in all parts of the world where there is a concentration of South Indians, the manifestation of the festival is best witnessed at Batu Caves and Penang.

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 and is a one-day public holiday for certain states in Malaysia, which allows for thousands of Hindus to flock to temples to pay homage to the presiding deity. Thaipusam may fall on different dates around the same period in other years. Thaipusam celebrates the day Goddess Parvati bestowed upon her son the "Vel" or lance to vanquish the evil demon, Soorapadman. This lance denotes spiritual insight, ability to differentiate right from wrong, righteousness and steadfastness. However, for many Hindus, Thaipusam has come to mean the birthday of Lord Muruga, the younger son of Lord Shiva.

Leading up to the event, Hindus prepare themselves by fasting, praying and observing austerities. It culminates in a three-day festival which begins from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple at Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in Chinatown and ends at Batu Caves. One the even of the celebration, Lord Muruga's image is decorated with diamonds, rubies and other jewels. The idol, together with those of his two consorts Valli and Deivayanai represent the spiritual and worldly energies (shakti), is placed on a silver chariot on a bed of flowers with burning incense on the sides. In the wee hours of the morning, the five-tone chariot is pulled by two bulls and hundreds of devotees on its 15km journey from Chinatown to Batu Caves. The procession weaves through major streets of the city and takes about eight hours to reach its destination.

A prayer ceremony is held at the foot of the caves and the flag of Lord Muruga is hoisted to announce the commencement of the celebration. The crowd of devotees and curious onlookers is huge and it is best to take public transport that will drop you right at the steps of the temple grounds as parking is near impossible. Visitors climb 272 stairs to the main cave in the outcrop of limestone caves in Batu Caves where the main shrine is located. The arduous climb is punishment enough at the best of times, yet for the many devotees who are also carrying heavy offerings in gratitude to Lord Muruga, the climb seems effortless. Devotees go through this exercise to seek forgiveness for their past deeds, to ask for special favors or to thank Lord Muruga for wishes granted.

Some devotees carry the kavadi, a wooden arch with two pots of milk or honey at its end, decorated with peacock feathers. However, bearing a simple pot of milk up to the shrine is all that is required. These forms of offering are overshadowed by more showy ones with huge metal frames bedecked with decorations for the belief is that the larger the kavadi the more resolute is one's devotion. For many, even carrying a heavy kavadi is not enough. Skewers protruding through cheeks and metal hooks and spikes are the order of the day. These devices are attached to all parts of the body. Nothing is spared - tongues, cheeks and backs. This is a quaint evolution of the celebration not found in Hindu scriptures. Hinduism advocates 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 pain and hardship.

Many tolerate this hardship for they are in a trance-like state. There is no blood and most prepare for this by undergoing specific rites during the preceding month. Austerities are performed and the body and soul are 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. The atmosphere is quite tense as the devotees get ready for their final act of penance. The air is filled with noisy drumming chanting and the smell of incense. Families and tourists shout encouragement and support to the devotees or merely standing around in sheer fascination. Once the devotees go into trance and have the kavadi placed on the shoulders or the hooks pierced onto their bodies, they walk from a nearby river to the temple ground. From there, it is a devotion-testing climb up the steps to the main temple high above.

On reaching the summit, they lay down their kavadi and pour the milk or honey offering 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 holy ash. There is not a drop of blood, no pain and even more amazing, no scarring at all! The number of people who throng the temple keeps growing each year. The massive gathering and the carnival-like atmosphere at the foot of the hills is quite exhilarating and something all visitors to Malaysia should experience.

In a world where modernity and technology overshadows every part of our lives, faith and spirituality still play a huge part in the lives of local Hindus and nothing reflects the staunch devotion of the followers like the amazing Thaipusam festivities.

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