Thaipusam – The Festival of Lord Murugan
Malaysia is a country that truly embraces diversity, creating a wonderful tapestry of cultures, races and religions living together in harmony. An example of this is the festival of Thaipusam among the Hindu Indian (Tamil) communities. This festival is celebrated with a lot of energy, ceremony and religious devotion. While celebrated all over the world, it is in Malaysia that the festival has really taken root and flourished like never before. This is testament to the harmony and cultural diversity that are hallmarks of Malaysian society.
As such, I wanted to share with all of you some information about the festival, from its origins, how it is celebrated, and even how to get to some of these sites and where you can stay if you are thinking about visiting. By reading this, I hope that you have a deeper understanding of this sacred, devotional and expressive festival as it is celebrated in Malaysia.
PLEASE NOTE: some of the pictures and videos in this article show acts of self-mortification, including piercing of the skin with hooks, therefore they may not be suitable for the faint-hearted.
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival that is celebrated primarily by the Indians particularly the Tamil community. The word ‘Thaipusam’ is a combination of the names Thai, a lunar month within the Tamil calendar, and Pusam, the name of a constellation made up of three individual stars. The festival falls on the full moon during the month of Thai, which is around January or February in the western Gregorian calendar. According to Indian astrology, this is the time of the year that the Pusam constellation is at its highest position.
The festival celebrates the overcoming of negative forces by the gods. Specifically it is in relation to Lord Murugan, who was born during a battle between the asuras (demi-gods) that attacked the heavens, and the devas (gods). At one point during the battle, the devas suffered massive losses and were unable to block the onslaught of the asura forces, led by the demi-god Surapadma. Facing their impending defeat, they approached Lord Shiva, who is one of the three main gods within the Hindu pantheon, alongside Brahma and Vishnu. At a loss, they requested Lord Shiva’s help and asked him to name a suitable commander who could lead their armies to victory over the asuras. They surrendered themselves to Lord Shiva and prayed fervently to him. Lord Shiva granted their request, creating a mighty warrior from his own powers. This warrior was Lord Murugan who immediately assumed leadership of the celestial forces, inspiring the devas that eventually went on to defeat the asura armies attacking them.
Thus, during Thaipusam, Lord Murugan’s image is adorned and decorated, placed on a chariot before devotees and escorted in a long procession. Lord Murugan embodies the qualities of bravery, power, virtue and beauty. Apart from this, Hindus also believe that he is a universal deity that bestows many boons and favours. Therefore devotees who have taken vows or made pledges to him fulfil these by undergoing rites of self-mortification. This often takes the form of carrying kavadis, which is discussed below.
Who is Lord Murugan?
Lord Murugan is a Hindu god. He has many other names including Kartikeya, Subhramanya, Skanda, Shanmuka (Shamuga), Subhramanian, Sadhana, Guha, Sentil, Saravana, and Kumaraswamy. He is the son of Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati, and is considered to be the perfect embodiment of bravery and intelligence. This is the reason why he is worshiped as a god of war and victory. He is also the brave leader of the deva forces and was created to destroy demons, who symbolise the negative tendencies of human beings.
Legend says that as Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati showered his brother, Lord Ganesha, with more love, Lord Murugan decided to leave their family abode on Mount Kailash and move to the mountain ranges in South India. Despite being urged to move back home by his father, Lord Shiva, he did not change his mind. This is the reason why Lord Murugan is worshipped more in South India as compared to religious practices in North India.
Lord Murugan holds a ‘vel’ or spear in one of his hands. This spear was given to him by his mother, the Goddess Parvati and embodies her ‘shakti’ or spiritual power. It is said that Thaipusam commemorates the day when she gave the spear to Murugan. His other hand is in the abhayamudra or the ‘gesture of protection from fear’. This mudra is a symbol of dispelling fear, granting reassurance, safety, bliss and spiritual protection. He mounts a peacock symbolising piety and the subjugation of all sexual desires. The peacock itself clutches a serpent in its claws, which symbolises the destruction of bad habits and all negative influences. Since he represents power and strength, devotees also believe that he rids them of all their suffering and grants them strength.
Lord Murugan destroyed the powerful commander of the asura army named Surapadma on the 7th day after his birth. Thus, he is known to be one of the fiercest among the male Hindu gods. He is known for his bravery and as the protector of Hindu Dharma.
As Shanmuka, Lord Murugan has six heads, representing the five senses and the mind. The six heads help him to see in all directions so he can combat problems arising in any direction. As a god of war with six faces, Lord Murugan also teaches his devotees to battle through life, riding themselves of negative situations, influences or people who have the potential to lead them down the six wrong paths of lobha (greed), kaama (sex), krodh (anger), moha (attachment), mada (ego) and matsarya (jealousy).
Lord Murugan has two consorts named Valli and Devasena. Valli is a tribal girl and Devasena is the daughter of Indra, king of the devas. They are the incarnations of the two daughters of Vishnu, Amritavalli and Saundaravalli, who were born from his eyes. They developed an undying love for Lord Murugan and performed severe austerities to have Lord Murugan as their husband. Following his instructions, Amritavalli incarnated as Devasena, a young girl born under the care of Indra in the heavens. Saundaravalli took the form of Valli, a maiden under the protection of Nambiraja, a hunter near Kanchipuram. ‘Valli’ is the Tamil word for a type of creeper plant. She was found amongst the creeper plants as a baby, therefore the hunter named her Valli.
After the war with the Surapadma was over, the devas were overjoyed. It was then Lord Murugan agreed to Indra’s prayers and accept Devasena as his consort. The wedding was celebrated with great enthusiasm at Tirupparankundram near Madurai in the presence of Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Indra’s re-crowning ceremony in the heaven named Amaravati soon followed. The other devas also regained their positions in the various heavenly realms.
Lord Murugan made his home at Skandagiri and proceeded to Tiruttani near Chennai where Valli was looking after the barley fields. After a series of tricks by Lord Murugan, Valli agreed to marry him once she realised that he was her beloved in disguise.
The kavadi attam, which means ‘burden dance’ is a ceremonial sacrifice and offering practiced by devotees during the worship of Lord Murugan. It is a central practice during the Thaipusam festival and emphasises repaying Lord Murugan for his kindness through the act of self-mortification.
The kavadi refers to a physical burden used by the devotee to request Lord Murugan for his assistance or in thanks. This assistance is usually sought after for loved ones who are in need of healing, or as a means to balance spiritual debt due to boons or favours granted in the past.
The devotees that take part in kavadi will proceed and dance along the pilgrimage route while bearing different types of kavadi.
The Origins of Kavadi
Rishi Agastya, one of the famed seven vedic sages of Hindu legend, wanted to take two hills, Shivagiri and Shaktigiri to his abode in the south. He commissioned one of his demi-god disciples named Idumban to carry them. Idumban was one of the few survivors of the deva-asura war between Lord Murugan’s forces and those of Surapadma. Surviving the war, he repented and became a devotee of Lord Murugan.
At this stage, Lord Murugan had just been outwitted by his brother Lord Ganesha in a contest. They were tasked with circumabulating the universe three times. While Lord Murugan had mounted his peacock and flown around the entire universe three times, Lord Ganesha has simply and reverently circumambulated their parents and was awarded the fruit of knowledge. Lord Ganesha had shown his filial piety as he saw the entire universe contained within his divine parents. When Lord Murugan returned on his peacock, he found that the prize had already been awarded.
In anger, Lord Murugan vowed to leave his home and family. He arrived at an area called Tiru Avinankudi at the Adivaram, which means the ‘foot of the Shivagiri Hill’. Lord Shiva pacified him by saying that Lord Murugan himself was the fruit or ‘pazham/pala’ of all wisdom and knowledge. Hence the place was called Pazham-nee or Palani, which means ‘you are the fruit’. Later, Lord Murugan withdrew to the hill and settled there in peace and solitude.
Idumban bore the Shivagiri and Shaktigiri hills, carrying them across his shoulders in the form of a kavadi, one on each side. When he reached Palani, feeling tired, Idumban placed the kavadi down so he could rest.
When Idumban wanted to continue with his journey, he could not lift the hills. Lord Murugan had made it impossible for Idumban to carry them. Upon one of the hilltops, Idumban saw a little boy wearing a traditional loin cloth. He demanded the boy leave the hill at once so that he could continue with his task. The young boy refused Idumban’s repeated requests. Losing his patience and temper, he attacked the child with his semi-divine strength and prowess as a warrior. However, to his surprise, he could not move the boy off the hilltop. Instead, he ended up hurting himself in the process.
Idumban regained his composure, realised who the boy really was and folded his hands in reverence. Lord Murugan changed his appearance to his usual form and declared that he was pleased with Idumban’s devotion to his guru and his determination. Lord Murugan appointed Idumban as his guard from that day onwards.
Lord Murugan also declared that people who carry the kavadi, symbolising the two hills that Idumban carried, and pray to him would please him greatly. Idumban prayed for the following, which Lord Murugan accepted:
- Whoever carries the kavadi on their shoulders and prays at temples after taking a vow, will have the blessings of Lord Murugan.
- That he was given the privilege of standing guard at the entrance of the hill.
Thus began the traditional practice of carrying the kavadi after taking a vow or making a pledge to ask for a boon, or in thanks for blessings that a devotee has received. To this day Idumban remains the guardian of all temples dedicated to Lord Murugan, seen near the front entrance to the inner sanctums.
Preparations for Kavadi Attam
The preparation for kavadi attam begins 48 days prior to the two-day Thaipusam festival. Devotees purge themselves of all impurities, mental and physical. They partake of a single vegetarian meal a day and for 24 hours before the actual Thaipusam festival, devotees maintain a complete fast.
Devotees prepare themselves by following a strict purification guideline that includes:
- Transcending desire
- Following a strict vegetarian diet
- Shaving of the head
- Sexual abstinence
- Bathing in cold water
- Sleeping on the floor
- Engaging in constant prayer
- Abstaining from all types of intoxications (drugs and alcohol)
- Not cursing
- Refraining from anything that beautifies the body
- Refraining from all forms of entertainment
- Waking up before sunrise to chant and meditate
On the actual day of Thaipusam, a guru or teacher performs a puja (prayer) and also gives initiations. Devotees dress in red, saffron or yellow coloured clothing, and kavadi bearers often observe silence throughout the day. A puja is then performed for the kavadi bearers, accompanied by the chanting of praises to Lord Murugan, with spiritual fervour. Once the puja is over, devotees prepare themselves to carry the kavadi and seek blessings from the guru. The guru will then place the kavadi on their shoulders to begin the dance.
Devotees perform kavadi attam by dancing to the rhythm and beat of thavil vadhyam and nagaswaram (genres of Indian music). Devotees dance in ecstasy as they enjoy the high state of religious fervour or are in trance. The dance can be awe inspiring, and there is a divine radiance on the faces of the dancers. These devotees often experience the state of feeling united with Lord Murugan. It is said that at times, Lord Murugan will enter and take trance in them for some time.
Kavadi Dance Song
The history surrounding the kavadi attam is strong and has even influenced traditional forms of dance, such as Bharatanatyam. This form of dance is accompanied by stylised music that is beautiful and evocative. Below is one such song that is danced to in Bharatanatyam, called a kavadi chindu. You can click on the “Play” button to listen online, or press “Download” to save the file to your mp3 player, iPod or computer and listen to it at your convenience.
|Kavadi Chindu (Bharatanatyam song)|
Types of Kavadi
Kavadis come in different shapes, sizes and materials. While there may be a difference in the way they look and how they are used, the purpose behind every one of them is the same, to show devotion to Lord Murugan and the other gods.
1. Thol Kavadi
The thol kavadi usually consists of two semi-circular pieces of wood or steel which are bent and attached to a cross structure that can be balanced on the shoulders of the devotee. This is often decorated with flowers, and peacock feathers, symbolic of Lord Murugan’s mount.
2. Paal Kavadi
The carrying of a brass or other metal pot on the head, which is filled with milk, vibhuthi (sacred ash) or other holy substance as an offering to deities.
3. Mayil Kavadi or Shadal Kavadi
This type of Kavadi is the most spectacular practice of all. It is a portable altar that can be two meters high (approximately 6.5 ft) or higher. It is decorated with peacock feathers or sometimes coloured and carved polystyrene, and attached to the devotee through 108 vels (spears) pierced into the skin on their chest and back. Some of these kavadi can weigh up to 40kg.
4. Alavu Kavadi
This is a form of self-mortification in which the tongue or cheeks are pierced with versions of the vel. The vel pierced through the devotee’s tongue or cheeks reminds him or her of Lord Murugan. It also acts as a preventative measure to stop him or her from speaking, giving the devotee a great power of endurance.
5. Vette Mulle
The vette mulle is a type of kavadi in which hooks are pierced into the back of the devotee. These hooks are attached to ropes which are either pulled by another devotee walking behind them or are used to pull a chariot.
6. Koodam Mulle
This kavadi involves the devotee having their skin pierced with small hooks. Then various items are tied to the hooks such as small pots of milk, vibhuthi (sacred ash), sandalwood powder or vermilion powder. These are all offerings to the deities. In some instances even fruit offerings are tied to the hooks.
During Thaipusam, it is very common to see many devotees in trance. Some of these kavadi devotees are taken care of by their siblings, wives, husbands or other relatives. Many of these men and some women go the barber beforehand to shave their heads as another sign of the fulfilment of their wishes or as an offering.
The pain from the vel skewers or hooks can be excruciating. In most cases it is due to the power of the deity that takes trance in them that the devotees do not feel much of the pain. In fact many devotees often recount that they only feel pain from the initial piercing. After entering the various forms and levels of trance they are not even aware of anything around them, let alone the pain. When trance ends, they have already reached their destination and many recount that they have no memory of the journey itself.
When the piercings are removed, there is little to no bleeding and the wounds heal easily, due to the blessings of the deity that entered them.
Hinduism in Malaysia
Hinduism is the fourth largest religion in Malaysia. There are approximately 1.78 million Malaysians (about 6.3% of the total Malaysian population) that are Hindu, according to the Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristic Report 2010 by the Department of Statistics Malaysia.
The majority of Malaysian Hindus live in the western parts of Peninsular Malaysia. The states with the highest population percentage of Hindus are Negeri Sembilan (13.4%), followed by Selangor (11.6%), Perak (10.9%) and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (8.5%). The state with the least percentage of Hindus is Sabah at 0.1%.
Thaipusam in Malaysia
Thaipusam is celebrated every year in Malaysia and is a public holiday in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya, and the States of Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Penang and Selangor. Over a million Hindu devotees gather every year at various Hindu temples nationwide to celebrate this holy festival.
It is celebrated between January – February, depending on the full moon date during the Tamil month of Thai, according to the Hindu calendar. By far, the biggest celebration in Malaysia takes place at Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur and is known all over the world. Other temples where Thaipusam is celebrated strongly include the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (also known as the Waterfall Hill Temple) in Penang, and the Kullumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple in Ipoh, Perak.
Clip from a National Geographic Documentaryhttp://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/Thaipusam.flv
Or view the video on the server at:
Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur
Devotees begin preparations in the early morning, around 4am. The procession starts from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur and includes the use of a chariot made of silver. The statues of Lord Murugan and his two consorts are placed on the chariot and escorted to Batu Caves temple, where it arrives around noon.
The chariot was first used in 1893, is made from 350 kilograms of silver and cost RM350,000 to build. It is roughly 6.5 meters (approximately 21 ft) tall and has 240 bells on it. It consists of 12 parts, which were made in India. These were shipped and assembled when they arrived in Malaysia in 1893.
The main event takes place at the base of Batu Caves Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple complex. When the statue arrives, devotees begin preparations to conduct ritual acts of thanksgiving and penance. The kavadi devotees will first ritually bathe themselves. While they do this, many of them go into trances due to recitation of prayers and their own effort from being ritually clean over the previous 48 days. They are then lanced and skewered with metal hooks or spikes. This can be a painless procedure for the devotees if they are in trance.
Family and friends will then guide the devotees up the steep flight of 272 steps to the entrance of the cave. The devotees carry the various types of kavadi while they walk up the stairs. Some of the kavadis can weigh up to 100 kilograms (approximately 220 pounds). While they climb, and in some cases dance up the stairs, prayers continue to be recited. Due to the size and colourful design of the kavadis, they can also be clearly seen from the base of the temple complex.
Once the kavadi bearers reach the sanctum inside the cave, prayers are concluded and the kavadis are removed. The event will continue throughout the night, with hundreds of devotees queuing to carry their kavadi up to the sanctum inside the central cavern.
After the two-day celebration at Batu Caves, the procession returns to Sri Mahamariamman Temple, accompanying the statue of Lord Murugan and his consorts seated on the silver chariot. Thousands of people join the procession, and performers keep up their morale with the beating of drums.
If you plan to visit Batu Caves during the Thaipusam festival, it is recommended that you visit either in the morning or in the evening as it can get quite hot during the day.
Batu Caves was originally used by the Temuan People. Chinese settlers began excavating guano fertiliser (bat excrement) for growing vegetables, however the site was made famous by British colonial authorities after it was recorded down by them.
Inspired by the vel (spear) shape of the cave’s entrance, K. Thamboosamy Pillay, a prominent Malaysian trader of Tamil origin, promoted the cave as a place of worship. It was later dedicated as a temple to the worship of Lord Murugan, and Pillay installed the central statue in the cave. In 1920, 272 wooden steps were built up to the entrance of the cave, but have since been replaced with the concrete steps in use today.
The temple complex also houses the largest outdoor statue of Lord Murugan in the world. It is 42.7 meters (140 ft) high and was unveiled in 2006, after 3 years of construction. It is a monument that has become synonymous with Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. When people all over the world think of Kuala Lumpur, they think of the statue of Lord Murugan as one of the city’s most memorable icons. As well as being a very active religious site, Batu Caves is also one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular tourist attractions.
The Thaipusam Silver Chariot Procession at Srimahamariammam Temple, Kuala Lumpurhttp://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/ThaipusamSilverChariot.flv
Or view the video on the server at:
Getting To Batu Caves
Batu Caves is located about 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. It is advisable to travel there using public transport, as parking may be difficult to find during the festive season. During Thaipusam a special bus service is available from KL Sentral Station to Batu Caves for devotees and visitors. Taxis are also available from anywhere in the city.
The most convenient way to travel is by taking the KTM Komuter line (Batu Caves – Seremban route), to Batu Caves Komuter Station. From Kuala Lumpur city, you can take the KTM Komuter line from KL Sentral, which is the city’s main railway station and costs less than RM5 one way. Taxis are also available from KL Sentral Station and you can also catch the U6 bus from Titiwangsa bus station.
Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple
For more information about the Batu Caves temple or its activities, you can contact them for more details.
68000 Batu Caves, Selangor,
Phone: +603 6189 6284
Fax: +603 6187 2404
Places To Stay Near KL Sentral Station
Here is a list of places that you can stay at that are near KL Sentral Station if you are visiting. Please note that there are many other hotels in the area which can be found online.
Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur (4 Star Hotel)
2 Jalan Stesen Sentral,
Kuala Lumpur Sentral,
50470 Kuala Lumpur,
Phone: +603 2263 7888
Royce Hotel KL Sentral (3.5 Star Hotel)
20 & 22 Jalan Tun Sambanthan 3,
50470 Kuala Lumpur,
Phone: +603 2276 2420
Hotel Sentral Kuala Lumpur (3 Star Hotel)
30 Jalan Thambypillai, Brickfields
50470 Kuala Lumpur,
Phone: +603 2272 6000
Thaipusam in Penang
The Thaipusam festival that is held in Penang lasts for 3 days. It begins on the eve of the actual Thaipusam day until the day after Thaipusam.
The ceremonial worship of Lord Murugan begins on the eve of Thaipusam at around 6am. Devotees escort Lord Murugan on a silver chariot in a long procession, which is led by kavadis adorned with peacock feathers. The procession begins from Little India at 6am and ends at Nattukottai Chettiar Temple at midnight. Along the procession route, coconuts are smashed onto the ground, symbolic of the fulfilment of sacred vows. The best place to see this coconut smashing ritual is on Jalan Dato Keramat, in front of Penang Times Square. The procession will usually pass by this area from midday onwards.
On the day of Thaipusam itself, the kavadi devotees have their bodies pierced, just like in Kuala Lumpur. This takes place at the Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple on Lorong Kulit (beside the Rapid Penang office) from 3am onwards. Kavadi devotees will then begin their journey to climb 513 steps up to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Waterfall Hilltop Temple). The best time to see the kavadi devotees will be from 3pm onwards. Devotees holding the bigger kavadis usually make the journey at the end of the day, starting around 9.30pm. Vegetarian food and refreshments are available from the 130 thaneer panthals, or make-shift stalls. These stalls are usually festively decorated, and span the pilgrimage route.
The festival concludes the day after Thaipusam, during which the statue of Lord Murugan is escorted on the silver chariot back from the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, at around 6pm. The procession ends at Kovil Veedu Temple on Lebuh Penang via a different route than the original procession. The procession is once again accompanied with another coconut smashing ritual, and offerings of fruit, flowers and incense on a thambulam or big silver plate.
Getting To Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple
It is advisable to take a taxi to the Waterfall Hilltop Temple as parking might be a little difficult during the festive season.
Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple
For more information about the temple or its activities, you can contact them for more details.
Jalan Air Terjun,
10350 George Town,
Phone: +604 6505 215
Penang Tourism Action Council
You can contact Penang Tourism Action Council for more details, and any other questions you may have about visiting Penang.
56th Floor, Komtar
Phone: +604 262 0202
Fax: +604 263 1020
Places To Stay Near Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple
Here is a list of places that you can stay near the temple if you are visiting. Please note that there are many other hotels in the area which can be found online.
G Hotel Kelawai Penang (5 Star Hotel)
2 Persiaran Maktab,
Phone: +604 219 0000
Georgetown City Hotel (4 Star Hotel)
1-Stop Midlands Park,
Phone: +604 227 7111
Hotel Waterfall (3 Star Hotel)
160 Jalan Utama,
Phone: +604 229 5588
Thaipusam In Ipoh
The scale of Thaipusam celebrations in Ipoh is much smaller than compared to Kuala Lumpur or Penang, however it is just as electrifying. This celebration is an intense 24-hour practice for kavadi devotees and their families. The procession begins at Mariamman Kovil Temple, and ends at Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple.
Along the procession route, devotees set up make shift shrines and stalls that provide light refreshments for everyone who passes by. Devotees also dance and cheer to keep the spirit of the festival high.
Getting To Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple
It is advisable to take a taxi to the Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple as parking might be a little difficult during the festive season.
Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple
Ipoh Hindu Devasathana Paripalana Sabah
No. 140, Jalan Raja Musa Aziz,
Phone: +604 229 5588
Places To Stay Near Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniyar Temple
Here is a list of places that you can stay at near the temple if you are visiting. Please note that there are many other hotels in the area which can be found online.
Cititel Express Ipoh
2 Jalan S. P. Seenivasagam
Phone: +605 208 2888
No. 2 Regat Dato Mahmud,
Jalan Pasir Puteh
Phone: +605 255 6888
M Boutique Hotel Ipoh
2 Hala Datuk 5,
Off Jalan Leong Boon Swee
Phone: +605 255 5566
Pictures Of Thaipusam From Around Malaysia
For more interesting links:
- Mount Kailash and more
- 24 Holy Places & Eight Great Charnel Grounds
- Gadhimai – A Holy Festival?
- Diwali Celebrations in India
- Beautiful Hindu Temples
- Emperor Ashoka the Great
- 74 Grand Statues of the World
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