Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by Tamils that originated in South India, but is now particularly popular in Malaysia and Singapore. It is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, even though Indians make up less than 10% of the population (Ward 317). It begins on the first day with a full moon during the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar (January to February) and lasts for three days. This time of the year is a powerful occasion due to the austerity associated with the astrological signs of the full moon.
There are several versions of how the celebration originated, but the most widely accepted one includes the defeat of the evil demon Surapadma by the god Murugan, son of Parvati and Siva. It was believed that Surapadma victimized and hurt people, so the people asked Parvati to send her son to help them. However, she was unable to grant their request because Murugan was practicing asceticism in isolation. Not deterred by this, the people proceeded to where Murugan was living, who was touched by their journey and decided to help the people. On the day worshippers now celebrate Thaipusam, Parvati had given him a sacred lance to use as a weapon that aided in his defeat of Surapadma (Collins 63). Another, less popular, origin story claims that Murugan was taken away from his place of asceticism to be married in a temple. By accident, the priest polluted the auspicious ceremony by sneezing, so the marriage had to be postponed until the following year (Collins 77). Even though Hindus have differing opinions on how Thaipusam originated, they collectively celebrate it in the same way.
The celebration comprises of a three-day festival and has a particularly busy schedule for followers. Before the sun rises on the first day of Thaipusam, a Pandaram, a non-Brahmin priest, meets other festival committee members at a shop-house, which holds a chariot and a murti (image) of Murugan. The festival usually begins at 4:00AM when the Pandaram performs puja (worship) on the image, anointing and dressing it, and passing flaming lights before the image (arati). At 8:00AM, a chariot procession begins. Behind the chariot, about twenty men and a couple of boys carry wooden arches called kavadis on their shoulders with a pot of milk suspended at either end. They walk without shoes because of the sacred journey they are beginning. Large throngs of worshippers gather around the chariot to make offerings to Murugan and to touch sacred ash to their bodies.
While the chariot, murti, and the garments worn by celebrants are physically and elaborately decorated, the festival is also embellished artistically through dance and music. Along the journey, kavadi dances (kavadi attam) take place, where dancers form in circles and seem to enter a trance as the music intensifies and their dancing becomes more complicated. Sometimes, individuals are seen dropping to the ground in a faint, overcome with the spiritual presence of the god. Fan-bearers follow, along with musicians playing drums and other instruments (Collins 62-68).
The procession is usually finished by 10:00PM and the murti is brought into the innermost chambers of a temple, where it is kept for two days. Immediately after the murti is placed there that night, devotees make a pilgrimage up a large hill or temple steps. In Malaysia, a full night of walking takes Hindus up almost three hundred steps to the Batu Caves, an essential component of Thaipusam. The caves serve as shrines and relate to the story of how Murugan conquered Surapadma. The second day of the festival is spent at this sacred place, where Murugan is worshipped and vows are received (Ward 319). That night, they make their way back down and the Pandaram, temple committee, musicians, and other worshippers take Murugan’s image out of the temple. They proceed back to the shop-house that holds the chariot, murti, and kavadis where the festival started. There, one last puja is performed before the festival is over and everyone heads home (Collins 88).
Prior to their time in the Batu Caves, Hindus will make vows in anticipation that they will be fulfilled symbolically through the act of the rituals performed throughout the length of the festival. Rituals encourage festival celebrants to leave material pursuits in preference for spiritual devotion and thanksgiving, representative of Murugan’s asceticism. Most Hindus are motivated by these vows, where they make an offering for a specific period of time and in turn, their vows are fulfilled. Thaipusam devotees often ask for requests that involve marriage, health and financial concerns, and educational wishes (Ward 318-319). Asceticism has many expressions, ranging from generic rituals to the more radical rituals. One simple ritual often associated with Thaipusam is head-shaving (pirarttanai mudi), which allows the devotee to become free of sin by removing hair, which acts as a pollutant. More complex rituals usually include body piercing. Worshippers will sleep on the ground in the temple courtyard the night before the festival, then take a ritual bath and have incense passed before their faces, ensuring that the presence of Murugan is strong. They will go into a trance and have hooks and skewers inserted into their bodies. The power of Murugan is believed to be the reason why blood is rarely shed and celebrants report that they feel little to no pain during mortification of the flesh. The most extreme part of this ritual an individual may perform includes pulling a chariot by the hooks pierced into one’s back, while carrying milk pots from the chest and from a six foot long lance, pierced through the cheeks (Collins 80-82).
The trances can affect humans biologically, psychologically, and physiologically. Similar impacts from trances are seen wherever they are practiced, even across different cultures (Simpson 21). This altered state of consciousness is defined as a change in the typical pattern of how an individual mentally operates (Ward 308). It can occur in many different ways, with forms including religious ecstasy and spirit possession more difficult to study empirically compared to forms like sleep and hypnosis. However, trances are typically demonstrated by changes in facial expressions and posture of the individuals, and there is still a conscious awareness of their surroundings, posing little harm to themselves or others (Kiev 134).
During Thaipusam, trances are strongly induced by sensory stimuli. Sanskrit prayers are heard chanted by religious followers and a pujari (temple priest), while burning incense is in the air. Trances are also aided physiologically by the feeling of light-headedness from fasting before the festival (Ward 320). Field observations suggest that the chanting, music, and dancing stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain and disrupt the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic system will dominate, causing muscle tension and decreases in breathing rates. This is responsible for inducing and maintaining the altered state of consciousness (Ward 312, 323). Individuals often report that after coming out of their altered state of consciousness, which is also associated with feelings of floating and extreme emotions, they experience a sense of exhilaration and rejuvenation (Ward 322). This lack of pain that they feel is suggested to be from the release of endorphins, blockage in the sympathetic nervous system, or modification of the physiological process from previous experience (Prince 310-311).
Positive psychological benefits of trances include prestige and respect paid to the individual by others, in addition to the ability to release emotions that may have been previously held in due to shame. Interpersonal relationships across different classes that would otherwise be frowned upon can also be formed. On a more encompassing level, these trances can encourage cohesion within a subculture by tightening social structure and interaction between the community and individuals (Ward 316-317). Despite possible pain and bleeding, both individuals and groups of people can benefit from the piercings as a release of emotions and a way for a community to fulfill status needs (Ward 331).
Individuals have had to find different ways to personally worship Murugan because of the politics in Malaysia throughout history. During the colonial period, the British administration banned all Malaysians from celebrating Thaipusam, worried that it could be used as a cover for violent acts. In the 1960s, the ban was retracted because the authorities viewed religion as a way to bring peace (Collins 89). While these celebrations are still banned in India, over the years there has been a significant increase in the number of people celebrating Thaipusam in Malaysia (Ward 324). In a matter of only 20 years, beginning in 1980, the number of people participating at the Batu Caves increased from 500 to over 3 000 (Collins 89). There are several reasons for the increase in number, one being that it provided a more egalitarian aspect. A festival to an Amman (village goddess) was meant for vow fulfillment and celebrated in various Malaysian cities. Everyone had an important role, including the Untouchables, to ensure that the community did not bring disgrace to their goddess. Gradually, as more estate owners discouraged participation in the festival, labourers headed to the Thaipusam festivals for a sense of equality with others (Collins 91-92). In addition, temples eventually became accessible to “Untouchables” and transportation was more widely available, resulting in the resurgence of people worshipping Murugan (Clothey 115-116).
Furthermore, an increase in crowds due to tourism has been observed at Thaipusam festivals. While it can be an attractive tourism activity for foreigners, it is meant to be a sacred religious time for devotees, and the challenge is to balance both of these aspects (Weidenfeld and Ron 358). The possibility of a large amount of profit should not affect the spiritual acts of worship and celebration; however, domestic travel in Malaysia alone has increased just from Hindus travelling to the Batu Caves for a few days every year. While some practitioners report that they do not mind tourists, others think that their presence can be disrespectful, especially when tour operators and foreigners are said to not have the consideration to dress appropriately or to abstain from smoking on temple grounds. Tourists often come to the celebration to witness the remarkable event, and worshippers may feel pressured to meet those requirements, which could lead them to stray away from the authenticity of the festival. Another negative force on the worship from the increase in the festival’s popularity is the large number of crowds in the limited space at the caves. The Batu Caves are particularly popular; followers explain that the environment of being surrounded by people at a splendorous temple, elevated high on a hill, makes them feel closer to their god. In order to alleviate congestion in these temple centres, better management on transport could be implemented, or people could be encouraged to visit the other various temples spread throughout the country (Kasim 444-452).
The festival has generated controversy among different groups of people in today’s society. In recent years, the authorities in Singapore banned music from the festival altogether. Celebrants argue that both music and dance are essential in religious expression (Kong 241-242), and it is noted that the loud beating of drums in the lion dance performed on the streets on Chinese New Year is still allowed. However, people may argue that the Thaipusam ceremonies focus on the ostentatious aspect of body piercing. Some devotees spend up to $300 for kavadis, and there have been regulations put into place in Malaysia, specifically Penang, prohibiting the use of cheek skewers longer than eight feet (Ward 325). Piercing bodies with hooks and skewers also raises questions about the safety of participants. During the 1970s and 1980s, the methods of body mortification became more dangerous, like wearing shoes made out of nails (Jegindo et al. 174). To what extent should the authorities control the acts of religious worshippers for the safety of everyone? Even with these differing opinions, the festival becomes an increasingly popular time of year when over a million Hindus take part in both the joyous and sacred aspects of the festival dedicated to Murugan.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Clothey, Fred (2005) The many faces of Murukan: the history and meaning of a South Indian God. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Collins, Elizabeth (1997) Pierced by Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
Jegindo, Else-Marie, Lene Vase, Jens Jegindo, and Armin Geertz (2013) “Pain and Sacrifice: Experience and Modulation of Pain in a Religious Piercing Ritual.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 23, No. 3: 171-187.
Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management, Vol. 20, No. 3-4: 441-456.
Kiev, Ari (1961) “Spirit Possession in Haiti.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 118, No. 2: 133-138.
Kong, Lily (2005) “Religious Processions: Urban Politics and Poetics.” Temenos, Vol. 31, No. 2: 225-249.
Prince, Raymond (1982) “The Endorphins: A Review for Psychological Anthropologists.” Ethos, Vol. 10, No. 4: 303-316.
Simpson, George (1964) “The Acculturative Process in Trinidadian Shango.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1: 16-27.
Ward, Colleen (1984) “Thaipusam in Malaysia: a psycho-anthropological analysis of ritual trance, ceremonial possession and self-mortification practices.” Ethos, Vol. 12, No. 4: 307-344.
Weidenfeld, Adi and Amos Ron (2008) “Religious Needs in the Tourism Industry.” Anatolia, Vol. 19, No. 2: 357-361.
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Article written by: Michelle Kwan (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.