• Kelan River Taroko National Park
  • Plyons Princess Pier
  • Little Penguins St Kilda Pier
  • Panaroma Yarra Valley
  • Chandon Yarra Valley
  • Bidding Goodbye Koh Lipe
  • Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Taipei
  • Pebbles QiXingTan Beach
  • Candle Rocks Yehliu Geopark
  • Nanya Rock Formations Taipei
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22 January 2014

Thaipusam in Penang (January 17, 2014)

This is embarrassing…after 20 years in Penang, I had never once witnessed Thaipusam until today. It was reported that 1.5 million tourists and devotees from all over the world flocked into Penang just to see the colours, noise and activities of Thaipusam, hence it would be silly of me to give this special day a miss. What was perceived as Hindu devotes piercing needles into virtually every part of their bodies, Indian music blasting through the speakers, beating of drums from afar and endless honking sound from automobiles or motorbikes turned out to be an eye opener. 

Mainly celebrated by the Tamil community, Thaipusam is a key Hindu festival that is held each year during the full moon in the tenth month of the Hindu Calendar.  This day marks the day when Lord Shiva’s son, Murugan, was given a lance to vanquish three demons. In Penang, the events taken place can stretch for 3 days throughout the day and night. For the devotees, it’s a day dedicated as a thanksgiving to Lord Murugan (also known as Subramaniam) for answered prayers, faith and penance. For me, it’s a day of appreciation towards the diversity and uniqueness towards the Malaysian (Hindu) culture. 

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On the eve of Thaipusam (which I did not attend), thousands of devotees line the streets to see the 120-year-old Silver Chariot bearing the statue of Lord Muruga making its annual 7.2km journey from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Queen Street to the Nattukotai Chettiar Temple in Jalan Air Terjun (Waterfall Road) where it is to stay temporarily.  

On the day of Thaipusam itself, devotees undertake a pilgrimage to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Kovil (Hindu temple) located high on a hill. As a fulfilment for answered prayers, many devotees go to extreme lengths including subjecting themselves to seemingly masochistic acts. To avoid the intense heat of Malaysian weather, I decided to join in the crowd of Indians later in the day (around 5pm) at Waterfall Road.

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These three guys pulled the heavy purple chariot with metal hooks fastened into their skin of their backs.

 

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Some carried pots of milk known as “paal kudam” on their heads while others carried “kavadis” (i.e. elaborate ornamental frameworks of spikes that pierce the skin of the carrier. Some penitents went as far as piercing their cheeks and tongues with hooks and skewers (or ‘vels’ – symbolic spears).

Devotees prepare themselves for the celebration by practicing strict disciplinary code on personal life style and elaborate ceremonies before assuming the kavadi. One may think this ritual may be excruciating, even verging on violent, but blood is not shed and devotees believe that as long as they have faith, they will be “protected” by the spiritual and mental endurance.

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Each kavadi carrier had a group of chanting helpers who encouraged and danced along them throughout the procession. The helpers form a protective ring around the kavadi in order ensure that the wearer can dance freely to the thundering music. I say “thundering” because the music was so load that I felt my heart almost beat out my chest. Whenever there’s a kavadi coming towards my direction, I was pushed to one side and squashed against whoever that stands beside. I’ll feel really bad and guilty if I hit a kavadi. *wringe*

On the next day, the silver chariot carrying Lord Muruga makes a return trip to Kovil Veedu Temple on Penang Street. Coconuts were smashed on the roads before the chariot. Generally, coconut breaking signifies the smashing of one’s ego, revealing the purity and for banishing obstacles in life to begin a clearer and brighter future ahead.

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Devotee patiently waiting for the arrival of the Silver Chariot whilst holding a plate of offerings of flowers, fruits and incense to Lord Muruga

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Musicians and drummers add to the carnival feel

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The 120 year old silver chariot was pulled by two bulls with blue coloured ribbons wrapped around their horns

It’s funny how one appreciates one’s culture only after travelling abroad. Walking aside kavadis, the thumping of drums, the colourful decorations and lights, the festive atmosphere  is an experience like no other.