Mar 2015 - Thaipusam - Cheryl Hoffmann

On a bright and early Monday morning a group of MCG members and friends met Cheryl Hoffmann for an informative and enriching tour of the Thaipusam Festival at Batu Caves. Batu Caves is one of the largest Thaipusam festivals outside of India, and 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of Thaipusam celebrations here. 


The tour was the day before Thaipusam, while the Silver Chariot was on its way from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the city center. This enabled us to get an up close view while things were relatively quiet before the excitement and crowds grew later in the day. 


Thaipusam is a colorful and vibrant Hindu festival celebrated by the south Indian Tamil people. The festival is celebrated in the tenth month of the Tamil calendar (January/February) during the full moon. It signifies the victory of Lord Murugan, the god of war, over the demon Surapadman. Murugan uses a vel (spear) given to him by his mother, Parvati, to defeat the demon. The festival gives thanks to Lord Murugan for prayers answered over the last year and hopeful blessings for the coming year, such as fertility, health, and prosperity.

Devotees give thanks through physical burdens or kavadi.  Kavadi originates from the fight between Idumban and Lord Murugan.  The fight began when Idumban moved the hills Lord Murugan lived in.  Lord Murugan became angry and planted the hills to ground.  He fought and killed Idumban but later brought him back to life. Idumban became Murugan’s follower and said that whoever brings kavadi or offerings to Lord Murugan will be blessed.  Carrying the kavadi symbolizes the burden of Idumban carrying the hills.  
These burdens manifest in various forms. The most common offering is carrying a silver urn filled with milk known as paal kudam.  Traditional kavadi consists of a frame decorated with bright colors and peacock feathers carried on the shoulders. In more extreme cases, devotees may carry heavy objects, push a skewer through their tongue, or suspend hooks from their flesh. Many shave their heads; a thick turmeric paste is applied afterwards as an anti-inflammatory.  It’s common for devotees to take vows for the month leading up to Thaipusam such as fasting or sleeping on a hard floor. Regardless of what they choose, they will not utter a single complaint during the process. It is believed that an individual taking on these physical burdens is ‘taking pain for his community or family’ in the hopes of gaining a blessing from Lord Murugan.

Our tour started at Sungei Batu, the river adjacent to Batu Caves.  This is the staging area where the devotees prepare for their pilgrimage.   We watched followers begin by bathing and cleansing themselves in the sacred river water.

Many were getting their heads shaved at makeshift barbershop tents.  Groups of families, ranging in age from infants to elderly, dressed each other in colorful matching outfits. Bright yellow saffron, the color of Shiva, was the most common, but there was no shortage of other colors.  Some prayed, burning rich smelling incense, while others decorated their heads or bodies with ash.  Many prepared a simple burden of paal kudam. Typically, one or two group members had more elaborate burdens like kavadis.   A few had priests administer skewers through their tongues, or hooks in their flesh to hang small urns of milk.  When a group was ready to make the journey to Batu Caves, they held a rally next to the river, praying, chanting, and dancing. 

Next we made our way from the river to the gates and to base of Batu Caves. We were pushed along with the crowd preparing to make the climb to the top.  Huge speakers were blasting Tamil songs, and there was loud and boisterous singing and chanting.  We passed by vendors selling food and wares. It was an ultimate visceral sensory experience of color, sounds, and smells. We briefly stopped at the temple before climbing the 272 stairs to the top.  We walked next to several groups on the way up the stairs.  Those carrying kavadi laboriously made their way up the center column of stairs. 

Priests, friends, and family stood close by to offer support through chants of encouragement and at times even hands to provide balance as the kavadi rested on heads and shoulders or burdens hung through flesh. Each step for some took all the strength they had. 


At the top of the stairs, the devotees continued into the cave to the altar for Lord Murugan. Some were so excited they ran screaming loudly. Those with paal kudam poured their milk over a golden vel. Groups congregated next to the altar in a celebratory mood. Several participants were in a trance channeling Lord Murugan. They spoke through him to the members of their group, offering support and guidance to family members with words of encouragement.  Afterwards, we watched as priests helped those out of their trance state before making our way back down to the base of the caves. 
What a colorful, exuberant experience…to see these families working together and supporting those in their group taking on such physical burdens.  The tour ended with a delicious vegetarian banana leaf meal and a deeper understanding of this rich and symbolic Tamil tradition.


Submitted by Paulette Norman