THAI POOSAM KAVADY FESTIVAL
The hoisting of the flag yesterday signalled the start of the 10-day Kavady fast and prayer for Tamils, culminating in Thaipusam day on February 9. Social anthropologist and cultural activist Dr Rajendran Govender explains the significance of the age-old
FESTIVALS have been an important part of life among people of Indian origin in South Africa from the time indentured labourers first arrived in the country, with the annual Kavady being the most popular, and continuing to draw crowds.
The popularity of Kavady has contributed to the promotion and perpetuation of Hinduism in South Africa. This festival of faith and forgiveness is celebrated in India as well as in places where Tamils constitute a minority, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
While Kavady is celebrated on three occasions annually in South Africa – the Thaipusam Kavady, Chitraparvam Kavady and Pangani Uttaram – the Thaipusam Kavady festival is arguably the most popular, drawing thousands of devotees to various temples in different parts of the country.
“Thai Poosam” falls every year on the full moon day in the Tamil month “Thai” (January/February). On this day, the full moon is in transit through the brightest star “Pusam” in the zodiac sign of Cancer, and the planet Guru is said to be the presiding deity.
The festival occurs in the month of Thai (the 10th month on the Tamil calendar) and on the day when the full moon passes through the star “Pusam”. This event is called “Thai Poosam”. This festival is dedicated to Lord Muruga – also known as Skanda, Subrahmaniya, Kartikeya and Shanmukha. There are many legends and myths associated with this Murugan festival.
Various purifying rituals are undertaken in the days leading up to it.
The Kavady prayer and penance is observed over 10 days by devotees. After the hoisting of the flag, which was performed yesterday and signalled the start of the Kavady festival, devotees have to observe celibacy and avoid non-vegetarian food, liquor and other intoxicating objects for this entire period. Devotees undergo strict discipline, sacrifice and self-mortification to show the Lord they are remorseful and repentant, and humbly seek pardon for their wrongdoings.
The flag that is hoisted has a sevel (rooster) drawn on it which symbolises the approach or the dawn of knowledge. It is the sevel that proclaims the coming of the sun in the east.
The sun is the heavenly body that dispels darkness. The sevel on the banner announces the approach of knowledge which will destroy all ignorance. The 10-day fast or sadhana is the clearance of one’s mind, body and soul. By fasting and going to temple and praying for 10 days, devotees become spiritually charged and uplifted to carry their Kavady.
Devotees have multiple reasons for participating in Kavady, ranging from being thankful for something good that has happened in their lives to wanting assistance with a problem such as illness or unemployment. Devotees begin by participating in a ritual, which starts with the asceticism of purification, followed by trance and dance, which are deemed essential to take them to a higher spiritual place and allow them to inflict pain on their bodies which may not otherwise be possible. Kavady puts devotees under enormous stress and compels them to draw on the power of God to relieve their difficulties.
Lord Muruga is believed to have the power to cure people of their illnesses and get rid of misfortune. Lord Muruga, son of the Lord Shiva, is deemed to have the qualities to destroy negativity and obstacles and symbolises strength and endurance. Devotees, young and old alike, carry the Kavady as a physical burden to please Lord Muruga. The Kavady symbolises the carrying of one’s burdens, sufferings, ill health or misfortune away from the temple and bringing it to rest at the feet of Lord Muruga.
On Thaipusam day, which falls this year on February 9, thousands of devotees will head towards temples in preparation to carry Kavady or to provide support to family and friends.
The Kavady itself is a bamboo arch decorated with flowers, mainly marigolds, ferns, palm shoots, peacock feathers and coconuts. The peacock is the vehicle of Lord Muruga.
The sides also contain two brass container (sombhus) filled with milk with which the devotee has to wash the statuette of the deity after completing the Kavady procession. The procession starts a distance away from the temple, typically a river bank or open ground, and then proceeds barefooted to the officiating temple. Orange and yellow are the preferred dress colour.
These colours are associated with Lord Muruga, hence the choice of marigolds. Some female devotees carry a Paal Kodum, which is a brass pot filled with milk, instead of a Kavady. The drumming and chanting of Vel Vel Shakti Vel (Victory to Lord Muruga) electrifies the Kavady procession and some start to dance in a trance state. Some devotees pierce their tongues and cheeks with “vel” (small spear). Other austerity measures include bodily torture through such acts as putting hooks in the body and hanging coconuts or pots of milk from them, putting a skewer into the tongue, walking on sandals made of nails, and piercing hooks into the back with ropes attached to them and having someone pull the other end of the ropes.
Another colourful sight at contemporary Kavady festivals is the pulling of huge chariots with hooks pierced at the back of a devotee’s body. Devotees do such austerity to please Lord Muruga or as an expression of thanks.
The Kavady procession is seen as an outward demonstration of mass devotion to God represented by Lord Muruga.
The ecstatic trance dancing of devotees during the 10 days of ritual and on the actual Kavady day signifies a belief that the powers of Lord Muruga become embodied in the purified body of the devotee during the dance. These powers are believed to bring auspicious results for the vow made by the dancing devotee.
The more subdued devotees who do not directly participate in the carrying of the Kavady offer fruits and milk to Lord Muruga. Offerings by devotees on Kavady day include the breaking of coconuts, both during the chariot procession and on temple grounds, to signify humility and the crushing of one’s ego to attain divine wisdom (jnana).
In South Africa there has been a great movement of people from apartheid-created Indian townships to more affluent suburbs and even to other provinces. However, the annual Kavady festival provides an opportunity for many people to return to their places of birth to carry Kavady. In this way, they connected with family and friends.
Some temples host the Kavady festival over two days if it falls on a weekday. A special Kavady is organised on a Sunday after the actual Kavady day.
This is for the convenience of devotees who are working or are at school.
However, this is done at a huge cost, especially for temples that are struggling to keep afloat.
South Africa has a great constitution where “persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language”.
In this regard, devotees who wish to participate in the Kavady festival should do so on the actual Kavady day and not on any other day for the sake of convenience. Devotees should obtain a letter from their temple which could be used to apply for special leave.
The Commission for the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights have strategies in place to protect all South African citizens who are prevented from practising their religion or culture.
The Sree Parasakthee Temple chariot leading the Kavady procession in Merebank under the spiritual guidance of Guru Shankaran, the spiritual head of the temple.