Thaipusam

Thaipusam (Tamil: தைப்பூசம்) is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan/Feb). It is also referred to as Thaipooyam or Thaippooyam in the Malayalam language. Pusam refers to a star that is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates both the birthday of Lord Murugan (also Subramaniam), the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, and the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (spear) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.

Origin

Lord Skanda (or Lord Murugan) was created during one of the battles between the Asuras and the Devas. At one point, the latter were defeated several times by the former. The Devas were unable to resist the onslaught of the Asura forces. In despair, they approached Lord Siva and entreated to give them an able leader under whose heroic leadership they might obtain victory over the Asuras. They surrendered themselves completely and prayed to Lord Siva. Siva granted their request by creating the mighty warrior, Lord Skanda, out of his own power or Achintya Shakti. He at once assumed leadership of the celestial forces, inspired them and defeated the Asura forces.

Meaning of Thaipusam

Thaipusam actually celebrates the birthday of the Hindu deity Subramaniam. On this occasion, Hindus show the sincerity of their faith. It is a time for making and fulfilling vows. Devotees pray for divine help and make vows. When their prayers are answered, they fulfil their vows.

Thaipusam has a number of meanings for Hindus, with the most spectacular and visible one being those that come to do penance for misdeeds or being unworthy of God. This penance takes the form of what look like incredibly masochistic feats of atonement such as seeing the endless procession of men who have attached limes, oranges or small silver urns to their backs and chests with hooks directly into their skin! Some add to this by attaching these hooks to rope which would be held by family members providing resistance and keeping these ropes taut against the devotee straining against it.

Others wear enormous 'kavadi's' (meaning "suffering at every step"), which are basically ornately decorated shrines assembled upon a steel frame that is supported around the bearers waist. Many of these kavidis weigh from 100-150 lbs and upwards and also have to be manhandled up the steps into the temple above.

Not all worship involves self inflicted pain, and many men and women make the walk to the Caves barefooted with a simple silver urn of fresh milk on their head in thanks for any children born that year.

The Kavadi

Generally, people take a vow to offer the Lord a Kavadi for the sake of tiding over a great calamity. Though this might, on the face of it, appear a little mercenary, a moment's reflection will reveal that it contains in it the seed of supreme love of God. The worldly object is achieved, no doubt, and the devotee takes the Kavadi; but after the ceremony he gets so God-intoxicated that his inner spiritual being gets awakened. This is also a method that ultimately leads to the supreme state of devotion.

The Kavadi has various shapes and sizes, from the simple shape of a hawker's storehouse (a wooden stick with two baskets at each end, slung across the shoulder) to the costly palanquin structure, profusely flower-bedecked and decoratively interwoven with peacock feathers. In all cases the Kavadi has a good many brass bells adorning it and announcing it as the Kavadi-bearer draws it along. As the Kavadi-bearer very often observes silence, the bells are the only eloquent signs of a Kavadi procession.

The two baskets hanging at each end of the Kavadi contain rice, milk or other articles that the devotee has vowed to offer the Lord. The more devout among them, and especially those who do it as a Sadhana, collect these articles by begging. They travel on foot from village to village, and beg from door to door. The villagers offer their articles directly into the basket of the Kavadi. The Kavadi-bearer continues begging until the baskets are full or the avowed quantity is reached, and then offers the Kavadi to the Lord.

Some keen devotees undertake to walk barefoot from home to one of the shrines of Lord Subramanya, bearing the Kavadi all the way and collecting materials for the offering. They have to walk a hundred miles sometimes! The people who place the articles in the baskets also receive the Lord's blessings.

The Kavadi-bearer is required to observe various rules between the time he takes up the Kavadi, and the day of the offering. He has to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the Kavadi, and at the time of offering it to the Lord. He also puts on the dress of a Pandaram, a Saivite mendicant. It consists of a saffron-coloured cloth, a conical scarlet cap, and a cane, silver-capped at both ends. Lord Siva, the Supreme Pandaram Himself, loves to wear this dress. The Pandaram lives on alms only. The bare chest of the Kavadi-bearer is covered with several rudraksha malas.

The Kavadi-bearer observes strict celibacy. Only pure, Sattwic food is taken; he abstains from all sorts of intoxicating drinks and drugs. He thinks of God all the time. Many of the Kavadi-bearers, especially those who do it as a spiritual Sadhana, impose various forms of self-torture. Some pass a sharp little spear through their tongue, which is made to protrude out of the mouth. Others may pass a spear through the cheek. This sort of piercing is done in other parts of the body also. The bearer does not shave; he grows a beard. He eats only once a day. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheek reminds him of the Lord constantly. It also prevents him from speaking. It gives him great power of endurance.

The Kavadi-bearer enjoys a high state of religious fervour. He dances in ecstasy. His very appearance is awe-inspiring; there is divine radiance on his face. Devotees often experience the state of feeling united with the Lord. Sometimes the Lord enters them and possesses them for some time.

Celebrations

In Palani, Tamil Nadu, India, Thai Pusam is celebrated with grandeur. Thousands of devotees flock to Palani and attend kavadi. According to palani.org, "The number of kavadis reaching Palani for Thai Pusam is about 10,000. For Pankuni Uttiram, 50,000 kavadis arrive. It is kavadi to your right, kavadi to your left, kavadi in front of you, kavadi behind you, kavadi above you and kavadi below you."

In Vaikom, Kerala, India, Thai Pusam festival is conducted with Kaavadis at Udayanapuram Subramanya temple. Devotees take panchamritha kaavadi, paal kaavadi, bhasma kaavadi etc.

In Karamana, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, Thai Pusam festival is conducted at Satyavageeswara temple. The utsava moorthy is taken in procession on a vahanam(mount). There is nel(Paddy)parai alappu or Nel alavu, as a ritual performed for good luck and prosperity.

The largest Thaipusam celebrations take place in Singapore, Mauritius and Malaysia. It is a public holiday in several states in Malaysia, including Selangor, Penang, Perak, Johor, Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur.

Thaipusam in Southeast Asia

Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia and Singapore are known for their festive fervor. The most famous Kavadi pilgrimage on the Thaipusam day takes place at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, where a large number of devotees head towards the Murugan temple in procession carrying the 'Kavadi'. This festival attracts over a million people each year at the Batu Caves, near Kuala Lampur, which houses several Hindu shrines and the 42.7 meter high statue of Lord Murugan that was unveiled in January 2006. Pilgrims need to climb 272 steps to access the temple on the hilltop. Many foreigners also take part in this Kavadi pilgrimage. Notable among them are Australian Carl Vedivella Belle, who has been taking part in the pilgrimage for more than a decade, and German Rainer Krieg, who went on his first Kavadi in the 1970s.

The temple at Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur, often attracts over one million devotees and tens of thousands of tourists. The procession to the caves starts at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur in the heart of the city and proceeds for 15 kilometers to the caves, an 8-hour journey culminating in a flight of 272 steps to the top.

In Malaysia, although rare, scenes of people from different ethnic groups and faiths bearing "kavadi" can also be seen. Interestingly, Thaipusam is also increasingly being celebrated by the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. Thaipusam is also celebrated at another cave site, the Sri Subramaniar Temple in Gunong Cheroh, Ipoh, Perak and at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple along Jalan Waterfall in Penang. Temple secretary P. Palaiya Sri Subramaniar Temple in Gunong Cheroh reported that about 250,000 devotees participated in the festival 2007, including 300 kavadi bearers, while 15,000 came with milk offerings.

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