Singapore FESTIVAL MUST-SEE: THAIPUSAM EXPERIENCE T H A IPUSAM
January 31, 2018; it’s generally two days long, but can be as long as four days
This festival is not unique to Singapore, as it is celebrated in all Tamil communities, primarily in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. But it’s certainly one of the most interesting festivals on the tiny island.
The word “Thaipusam” is derived from the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam, which is at its highest point during the festival. It honours the destruction of an evil demon, Soorapadman, at the hands of Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam), the Hindu god of war, who was given a spear by Parvati to wage the battle. Murugan is seen to be the personification of Shiva’s light and wisdom, and so devotees pray to him as the destroyer of evil.
Thaipusam starts in the early hours, and devotees carrying milk pots and kavadis take to the streets. A kavadi is a semicircular steel or wooden frame with bars for placing on the shoulders of the devotee. It is decorated with flowers and feathers. Sounds pleasant enough – until you see the spikes designed like spokes on a wheel to penetrate the bodies of the followers. The frame – which can weigh up to 40 kilograms and be almost four metres in height – is hoisted onto the shoulders of the participants in the procession.
The ceremonial sacrifice through the physical burdens exercised in the ritual is called Kavadi Attam, which literally translates from Tamil to “sacrifice at every step”. The devotees pray to Murugan, and atone for their spiritual debts and sins. Some of the participants also pierce their tongues and cheeks with skewers (which is hard to watch!), symbolic of renouncing the gift of speech so that he or she may concentrate more fully upon the deity in silence.
Devotees spend the preceding month undergoing mental and spiritual preparation for the ordeal, which also involves following a strict vegetarian diet. Tamil Hindus believe that undergoing such self-inflicted physical pain frees the mind of concerns with worldly pleasures, allowing for spiritual transcendence and purity.
However, not all the believers who join in the Thaipusam procession go to such extrenes: Some kavadi do not have any flesh-piercing spikes, and many women simply carry a pot of milk, which is an offering aimed at ensuring fertility.
The devotees cover a distance of around 4.5 kilometres, trailed by a crowd of friends and family who support and encourage them.