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

Asian Geographic - - Southeast Asia -

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.

WHEN WHERE

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