Thaipusam also holds immense significance in countries outside India with large Tamil communities like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, Guadalupe, Thailand and even South Africa.
Thaipusam or ‘Thaipoosam’ is observed on the Purnima (full moon day) during the auspicious month of Thai as per the Tamil calendar. It is celebrated by the Tamils of the Hindu community; during the month of January or February in the Gregorian calendar.
Thaipusam is a time for Hindus of all castes and cultures to say thank you and show their appreciation to Lord Murugan.
It was perhaps first observed in Malaysia in the 1800s, when the British brought Tamil labour to work on the Malaysian rubber estates and the government offices. The festival commemorates the victory of Lord Murugan, who is the Maha-Deva Sena-Divine Commander-General of the Celestial Army.
In Hindu stories, Goddess Parvati gave Lord Murugan a spear, ‘Vel’ to defeat the demon, ‘Soorapadman’. Therefore on the propitious day of Thaipusam, the devotees worship Lord Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva to obtain his grace to destroy all the evil and bad traits in their life. Lord Murugan is the divine spark of power from Lord Shiva's third eye, which could not be handled even by the deities for a long time. He is also known as Kartikeya, Kumaran, Kandhan,Skanda, Velan, Arumugam, Shanmugam are some of several names.
Devotees often pierce various parts of their body with silver skewers, and carry large contraptions known as Kavadi. Up to a week before the Thaipusam celebrations, Kavadi bearers fast, sleep on the floor without pillows, meditate, living in simplicity like a hermit, in preparation for the event. Then on the day of Thaipusam, they ask trusted relatives or a priest to pierce their cheeks, tongue, face, and other body parts with vels, then load a Kavadi onto their shoulders before setting off on the devotional procession.
The Kavadis are exquisite works of religious art with peacock feathers, garnished with aluminium plates adorned with pictures of Hindu deities. Surprisingly there is no blood spilled throughout the procession. Not all devotees carry Kavadis to show their devotion to Lord Murugan - some join the procession bearing pots of milk called paal kudam, while couples who prayed for and had been blessed with children over the past year will carry their babies in saffron slings suspended from sugarcane stalks. Along the procession, thousands of fresh coconuts are smashed, another act of devotion to Lord Murugan.
This is a colourful event. Women wear jasmine flowers in their hair. Yellow and orange, the colours of Murugan, dominate. Orange is also a colour of renunciation, and is worn by those whose pilgrimage is a temporary path of asceticism, during this festival.
Despite a carnival atmosphere, it is deeply reverential for pilgrims. In Singapore, I was curious as to why pilgrims were driven to mortification of the flesh - perhaps because I was squeamish, did not like needles and knew from an early age I would never be involved in the medical or nursing path! Yet, I remember when my amma-mother took us to the Sri Sreenivasa Perumal temple, where the procession started.
We were there to support a young lad who had asked my parents' blessings to carry a kavadi. His mother was living in India. At the crucial time of piercing his tongue, a little boy watching nearby, fainted. Later the five-year old said, 'I just imagined what it would be like?' That boy may have had a blessing from Lord Murugan, but I remember being completely fascinated at the fact there was no blood and the recipient was in trance, and with a new-found energy he had sprung up and danced. We knew he had no formal training to dance like that!
It is fascinating to watch the Kavadi-bearers spring-up and spin and dance on an ecstatic drug less high to a hypnotic drumming that seems contagious, tempting the spectator to join in. Some Kavadi-bearers even step on hot searing ash, without any scarring or being burnt.
A group of follower’s chant and help each Kavadi along the route under the hot tropical sun. My mother thought it was good we followed the young man for the four kilometres, finishing at the Tank Road Murugan Temple, but, I think, she decided it was too much for us, and we took a taxi for part of the way!
In the Batu Caves there is a breathtaking image of Lord Murugan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where pilgrims climb huge concrete steps to reach these substantial caves. One traveler has described, 'K.L.'s biggest blasts of nature are the Batu Caves, whose awe-inspiring natural caverns are reachable by a cardiac stress test of 272 steps...!'
Thaipusam has indeed transcended race and religious barriers, for it is not surprising to see Chinese, Caucasian Christians and Buddhists carrying a Kavadi in Singapore and Malaysia.
Carl Belle, an Australian follower, who has taken 14 Kavadis each year by 2009, said in a world service BBC programme:
"There is something extremely special about Thaipusam, and if I miss it in Australia I feel a sense of loss, of grief that I'm not actually there."
According to Carl, the piercing of skewers symbolises several things:
• that the pilgrim has temporarily renounced the gift of speech so that he or she may concentrate more fully upon the deity
• that the devotee has passed wholly under the protection of the deity who will not allow him/her to shed blood or suffer pain the transience of the physical body in contrast with the enduring power of truth
When we first see piercing of needles and skewers through the tongue and body it seems severe and torturous, but Carl says,
"One of the things that attracted me to Thaipusam was the incredible energy waves...kavadi worshippers seem to radiate this ecstasy that I never experienced in religious life in any other real context.
And it is something incredibly special that people are prepared to make this commitment to trust a god to take care of their bodies and their welfare in such a dramatic way. It's a very dramatic statement to make, if you like, in the belief in the deity."
To quote Carl again,
"Hindus believe that each soul has a spark of divine within, so in actual fact in one way it's a journey outside but it's also a journey inside...so you're in immediate contact with the divine for maybe a short blissful period while you'e actually carrying this kavadi.
It's the path towards the ultimate goal of Hinduism is realisation...While you're in this state of trance you're in a state of divine communion and that imposes this feeling of ecstasy upon you which makes you aware of your ultimate objective.
And of course when you are removed from the trance it also makes you aware of how far you are from the ultimate objective."
Another pilgrim describes the experience of the procession like this: "The first time I had the experience I just felt like I had a strong light coming into me - you feel that somebody is beside you and taking care of you..."
I have personally always found the aspect of Divinity in Murugan, friendly but quite awe-inspiring.
In a corner of the world in Wales, during the full moon, we hope to listen to Lord Murugan chants and wish healing thoughts and offer prayers for Light, Peace and Strength for All, in our journey through Life.