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

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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.

Ra­jen­dran Goven­der

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