Every year in late January or early February, Hindu worshippers celebrate the festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a popular event that draws out crowds of people, as they are spectators or participants in this Hindu festival. Thaipusam is celebrated throughout various regions of Malaysia; The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpar is the most widely recognized site of Thaipusam. However, it is celebrated in various Malaysian states including Penang, Perak, and Melaka. It is said to be the biggest, and most intense religious event to take place in Malaysia (Kasim 449). Devotees of the Hindu deity Murugan gather together as they are pierced in various parts of their bodies (including tongue, cheeks, forehead, and back) and barefooted, they carry a statue of Murugan, an altar prepared for him, or a chariot, up to a sacred temple to worship and give offerings, such as milk, coconut, flowers, and incense to this supreme deity (Collins 80).
Although Thaipusam was traditionally festival of the Tamil people, it now draws in many different groups: Hindus from various backgrounds, Sikhs, members of the Sinhalese community in Malaysia, as well as Chinese devotees (Kasim 446). It continues to grow each year in popularity. More devotees are attending the festival, as well as more curious onlookers. They gather in late January or early February, depending on the time of the full moon; this is known as the Hindu month of Thai (Collins 79). Numbers attending the festival have grown over the years. Approximately one million people gather for this yearly event (Kasim 445).
One must ask, what is the importance of Murugan? Why has it become an annual tradition to celebrate this Hindu deity? The creation of Murugan is explained in a myth that contains Siva, Parvati, asuras [demon enemies of the gods], and the pleas from various other gods.
Separated from Parvati, Siva granted the asura brothers the power to rule the universe as they pleased. The asuras took power in a destructive way that oppressed other Hindu gods. The oppressed gods pleaded with Siva to create a son who would be able to destroy the asura brothers. Siva agreed, and Murugan was created. Parvati returned to Siva’s side and helped to raise the new god. As a child, Murugan was said to be playful, and exhibit great force. As he aged into manhood Siva and Parvati equipped Murugan with weapons including the vel, which is widely recognized today as a symbol of Murugan. Murugan is always pictured with his vel: a sharp spear-like weapon that is said to be strong enough to destroy an illusion, and help man to understand his truth. As the myth has it, Murugan, armed with weapons, and his vel, managed to annihilate the asuras and restore cosmic order. He was then worshipped as a supreme deity (Handelman 134-135). It has also been documented that Murugan is a deity who is associated with many various aspects, including hunt, war, love, and divine beauty. His name is said to stem from the word muruga meaning “tenderness, youth, beauty” (Collins 19).
When asked the significance and what Thaipusam means to them, devotees express that it is a joyous day, which allows them to be reborn, renewed from past sins, and purified (Kasim 447). Before the festival, the devotees participating in the pilgrimage endure a month-long cleansing period. This cleansing period is said to allow the devotees to prepare themselves for the endurance required for the festival. During this month they are denied sex, alcohol, and tobacco, and they meditate more frequently. This prepares them to mentally prepare for the journey that lies ahead (Kasim 447). In the days before the festival, devotees can be found sitting silently in temples, sharpening the hooks and skewers that will be used during the festival. Some devotees construct elaborate kavadi, which are square based altars that rest on a person’s shoulders and are secured around their waists with a belt. A picture of Murugan is placed in the altar, which is then decorated with various ornaments. Others construct small chariots, known as ratam, which are pulled through the pilgrimage attached to the devotees back by hooks that penetrate their skin (Collins 80). They begin their three-day procession, which starts by escorting a statue of Murugan to the temple, shrine, or cave.
One can easily spot a devotee who is partaking in the pilgrimage of Thaipusam. They are dressed in saffron colored cloth, and have white ash put upon their bodies. The devotee stands in a stance of prayer that is interrupted when a priest comes and passes incense in front of their face. This is said to invoke the presence of Murugan. The devotee then goes into a state of trance. During this trance some devotees begin to wildly dance, some faint, some grow rigid, and others remain calm. Once the devotee is in a calm, controlled trance, they are pierced with a vel, which resembles the vel of Murugan. Curiously, it is said that no blood is drawn while their skin is being penetrated with hooks and skewers. While being pierced, the devotee appears to feel no pain and shows no suffering that one may suspect would follow the extreme body piercing (Collins 80-81). Once pierced and prepared, the devotees, in their state of trance, will make a pilgrimage to show their devotion to Murugan. During this pilgrimage many of the devotees carry their offerings to Murugan attached to the hooks and vels that are penetrating their skin. For example, men will attach pots of milk to hooks that penetrate their chests. When a devotee of Murugan offers milk to the deity, it is a supposed symbol of a mother’s love. This is suggesting that just as an infant is in need of a mother, a human soul is in need of, and longs for a god (Collins 151-152). However, it is important to remember that symbols can be interpreted many different ways. How one individual interprets something can be completely opposite from how another would interpret it.
Why do the devotees pierce themselves with Murugan’s vel? The piercing of the body with Murugan’s lance demonstrates that the devotee is worthy in the eyes of God. It also displays Murugan’s power over his devotees (Collins 102). “Devotees who are pierced with the lance/vel of Murugan thus symbolically represent their victory over the demonic part of the self. However, this symbolic act may have different meanings for particular individuals” (Collins 131). It is in honor of Murugan’s famous weapon, his lance, that influences these devotees to allow their skin to be penetrated with hooks and skewers. Whether pierced through their cheeks, tongue, forehead, or back, the different piercings are said to have different meanings. For example, piercing of the tongue symbolizes control over sexual desires. The tongue is believed to be a phallic symbol, related to one’s sexuality and desires. “The fact that it is a red pointed organ, with dangerous potentialities, capable of self movement, usually discreetly concealed but capable of protrusion (as in the defiant and forbidden exhibitionism of children), which can emit a fluid (saliva) that is a common symbol for semen” (Collins 145). Elizabeth Fuller Collins writes that for some devotees, piercing of the tongue with a vel may symbolize that the devotee has been able to control, deny, or destroy unacceptable sexual desires (Collins 145). The main symbolism associated with the act of piercing the body in Thaipusam is the subduing of inner demons (Collins 176).
While piercing is one extreme form of vow fulfillment, there are vow fulfillments in the Thaipusam festival that are said to be less spectacular. For example, many parents bring their babies to the festival to have their heads shaved. These parents, and many other Hindus, believe that hair is a form of pollution and a symbol of sin. Thus they believe that shaving the head will help to purify the individual. When a child’s life is threatened by illness, or the birth of another child is desired, some parents make the pilgrimage to the shrine carrying their child in a sling that is suspended from sugarcane stalks, supported by their shoulders. If a woman or girl is making a milk offering, she will usually carry it in a brass pot upon her head. Some women make a vow to prepare cooked sweet rice or curry to feed the worshippers. Piercing of the women is not as extreme as the piercing of the men, but some women are pierced in areas such as the skin of their forehead or their tongues (Collins 82-83).
Once pierced, the devotees begin their trek to the temple, which is said to be the highlight of the event. It is a long trek that requires endurance; however, due to the trance that the devotees are under, the journey does not seem to tire them nor pain them. The journey’s length can be measured in different ways. Kasim provides us with the knowledge that the journey to the Batu Caves is two hundred and seventy-two steps long (Kasim 446). Once the pilgrimage has been completed, offerings are made to Murugan and his devotees worship him in the sacred temple.
Once the journey is finished, the devotees come out of their trance. Some do not remember their pilgrimage, while others remember only glimpses of the activities. How well they have performed their worship is important to the devotees. Whether they remember their adventure or not, the devotees are pleased with themselves that they have done what they believe to be the proper worship for a supreme deity.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Collins, Elizabeth Fuller (1997) Pierced By Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press
Handelman, Don (1987) “Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic Cosmology.” In History of Religions . Vol.27, No.2 pp 133-170. The University of Chicago Press.
Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” In Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management. Vol. 20, No. 3-4. Taylor & Francis Group
Kent, Alexandra (2004) “Transcendence and Tolerance: Cultural Diversity in the Tamil Celebration of Taipucam in Penang, Malaysia”. In International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol.8, No.1/3 pp 81-105. Springer
Singhan, E.V. (1976) Thaipusam. E.V.S. Enterprises
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Article written by: Shannon Jarvie (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.