I remember seeing these images on “Believe It Or Not” or maybe an “In Search Of” sort of TV show. But that seemed to be in some far away TV land place, yet now, we stumbled right into the middle of it
Thaipusam is a key Hindu ceremony that is held each year during the full moon in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. In 2017 it was held over the 7,8,9th of February. In 2018 it well be held in January.
“The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, January/February, and the name of a star, Pusam. This particular star is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion; as well as of divine strength and power, gave Murugan, the universal granter of wishes a “spear” so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.” The motive
of the Thaipusam festival is to pray to Murugan to receive his grace so that bad traits are destroyed or favors granted or to make penance for transgressions.
Thaipusam takes place in several cities in Malaysia but the second largest celebration is in Penang. From the city streets in Penang, it is 4 miles to Waterfall Temple located on a mountainside outside the city.
First, along the route, stacks of shelled brown coconuts are donated by families or civic groups so the crowds can break them on the pavement. The broken coconut symbolizes the breaking of ones bad ego to reveal purity inside. But by far, most onlookers have a great romp of smashing as many coconuts as are available onto the street and send the coconut water and shards flying. It makes a tremendous mess but the organizers come soon behind with sweepers to shove the shards aside. This makes way for the gold and silver chariots. The golden chariot is pulled by 2 small water buffalo. The smaller silver chariot is pulled by people. These chariots carry dignitaries. After they pass, front end loaders and dump trucks follow to clean up the masses of coconuts shards along the side of the street.
Hindus, throughout the day and year, seem to always be burning incense and leaving plates of offerings to the gods, whether in designated offering spots outside their home or on the sidewalks. On this day, they hand the offerings to the attendants of the chariots where the offering is tipped off the plate into the chariot and the plate is returned to the donor.
Devotees will make the 4 mile pilgrimage walking barefoot on the black pavement. Water trucks move along the route to help cool the surface but in the 90 degree weather, the surfaces quickly dry and heat up again. Asphalt can become 40 to 60 degrees hotter than the air temperature. This is only part of the burden met by the devotees.
“On the month leading up to the pilgrimage, the devotee will have mainly subsisted on a heavily
restricted diet and then completely fast on the last few days before the pilgrimage; naturally, these extremes demand of very high level of mental and physical fortitude.”
The most basic devotee will carry on his head, a pewter or silver pot of milk, a symbol of purity and virtue. Holding a pot of milk on ones head for a nonstop 4 mile march, then trekking up countless concrete steps to the
temple, is no easy feat. Other devotees will become far more extreme in their efforts.
A Kavadis, literally “sacrifice at every step”, is a large, heavy, contraption extending out from the shoulders and towering over the head. Some Kavadis rest on pads on the shoulders and around the waist. Other devotees take the excessive discomfort by attaching the Kavadis with countless spears threaded into the outer layer of skin to spread the load. Since there is exposed skin left,
why not dangle shells, beads, or any other sort of decoration from tiny hooks piercing the skin of the chest, back, arms, cheeks, forehead. The mouth and tongue is an impressive piercing spot leaving little opportunity for a devotee to drink or eat along the marching route. Some devotees prefer to just bite down on a spear rather than piercing it through their cheeks.
Of course, the most notable devotees are those who
harness themselves with many hooks on their backs then have reins held by an attendant. The devotee must lean forward to make progress literally pulling the skin away from their back.
The small temples along the route often have booths where they hand out sweet fruit drinks in small paper cups. Closer to the temple, large vats of noodles with tofu, among other vegetarian meals or snacks, are ladled into plastic containers and handed to the crowds. Otherwise, there are plenty of food stalls where the crowd can pay for traditional food and souvenirs, all lining the streets leading to the base of the temple hill.
The third day of celebrations is anticlimactic. The gold and silver chariots return to their home temple in the city and the cleanup of trash begins.
It is amazing how trash was strewn around the grounds of the sacred temple. Paper cups and all sorts of plastic containers were trampled underfoot and blew in the breeze. People just dropped their trash wherever. This was not all their fault as the temple organizers provided very few trash cans around the grounds. By the end of the second day, the temple grounds were a trash pit. Any other festival, during this time of the Chinese New Year, was well organized with plenty of trash cans and a detail of workers always working through the celebration picking what little trash was
littered. There is a lot of cultural diversity in Malaysia butsadly, at times, the diversity has stark differences.