Thaipusam is a highly symbolic Hindu festival celebrated by Singapore’s Tamil community. It is an annual procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks. Celebrated in honour of Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Lord Murugan), who represents virtue, youth and power to Hindus and is the destroyer of evil, it is held during the full moon in the 10th Tamil month.
In Singapore, the Thaipusam ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning where devotees fulfill their vows with a 4.5 km walk from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple along Serangoon Road to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.
The festival is a visual spectacle and it often brings traffic in the city centre to a standstill, with a colourful procession full of chanting and dizzying rhythms of Indian drums.
The festival also attracts a lot of photography-enthusiasts like myself. (There were so many that it was almost too much, especially since several of them behaved in an overly 'assertive', egocentric manner :-( )
Nevertheless I enjoyed this festival very much! Although not a religious person myself, I have always been intrigued by rituals and religious artifacts and I am crazy for color and ornamentation. If you see the pics, you will understand that I am so happy to have witnessed this event!
More background: (or skip this part and go straight to the pictures)
The first batches of devotees usually carry milk pots and wooden Kavadis. A Kavadi consists of two semicircular pieces of wood or steel which are attached to a cross structure that can be balanced on the shoulders of a devotee. It is often decorated with flowers, palm leaves and peacock feathers. The milk they have been carrying is then offered to Lord Subrahmanya at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Some devotees also pierce their tongues with skewers and carry a garlanded wooden arch across their shoulders.
The Kavadi itself is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from the God Murugan.
Generally, Hindus take a vow to offer a kavadi to idol for the purpose of tiding over or averting a great calamity. For instance, if the devotee's son is laid up with a fatal disease, he would pray to Shanmuga to grant the boy a lease of life in return for which the devotee would take a vow to dedicate a kavadi to Him.
Devotees carrying spiked Kavadis, which require elaborate preparations, leave the temple in the later part of the morning and continue till night. The festival is not just an exclusively Indian affair; several Chinese devotees and people of other races also come to fulfill their vows on this day.
In preparation for carrying a Kavadi, a devotee has to prepare himself spiritually. For a period of about a month, the devotee must live a life of abstinence whilst maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. It is believed that only when the mind is free of material wants and the body free from physical pleasures that a devotee can undertake the sacred task without feeling any pain. The devotees are normally accompanied by friends and family members who cheer and offer support, usually in the form of prayers and chants.
Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approx-48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Murugan. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and take only pure, Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God.
On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi(burdens). At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common.
The simplest kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders, to the temple. In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheeks reminds him constantly of Lord Murugan. It also prevents him from speaking and gives great power of endurance. Other types of kavadi involve hooks stuck into the back and either pulled by another walking behind or being hung from a decorated bullock cart or more recently a tractor, with the point of incisions of the hooks varying the level of pain. The greater the pain the more god-earned merit.
Ok, so far for the background info.
So here are the pictures that I took:
Before doing their Kavadis, there is a lot of offering, ceremonial stuff and preparations to be done by the devotees and their 'posse'.
Each devotee has his gear lined up. Neatly organized, numbered, blessed...These are somebody's spikes.
And this set is from another person.
Spikebed-shoes and milkpots to be filled. More about this footwear and about the milk pots later on.
Ornamented pins, to be attached to the body.
Behind the temple was a big area for preparation, especially of the really big spike Kavadis.
As mentioned, each devotee has his own gear and 'crew'. The crew -amongst others- assemble the spike Kavadi, attach it on the body, make music, give support and/or walk along.
Lots of peacock feathers, tassels, chains, religious images and flowers are used in the Kavadi. Aren't they all gorgeous!
Ok, let the 'real work' begin;-). No, seriously. This devotee was one of the first ones that I saw and right of one with the 'heaviest' Kavadis. He had hooks in his back, with 10 ropes attached to them. One man was constantly pulling on the ropes, while the devotee himself added to the pull by leaning forward in an extreme angle. Behind the 'hanging-weight-man', was something that appeared to be a wooden dressoir/buffet, which he was supposed to pull as well!!!! On top of that he went on his knees and crawled forward, had extra weights on both under legs and lots of piercings in his face and on his arms. I wonder what this extreme Kavadis was a sign of: of borderless devotion, of big gratitude for something good that had happened, or as a big sacrifice to avoid something bad to happen.....Whatever it was, it was huge!!!
In the back we see the 'furniture' that he was pulling as well...
This was a big man with an even bigger Kavadis; the largest and highest that I saw that day.
"Hm, it IS huge, isn't it?!"
Here we see HOW big it was; coming from the preparation area everyone had to go through the temple to go outside to the road. This Kavadis did not even fit in the temple. The poor guy had to bend over totally, guided by numerous men to coach him so that nobody and nothing would get damaged on his way through the temple.
From time to time the devotees were encouraged by their 'posse' to dance and twist and spin. There was clapping and music and shouting. Fascinating.
Another crew at work, attaching the extra heavy leg weights.
This crew was quite at the beginning of the building up process.
Don't you just LOVE this ornamentation? It almost looks romantic with roses and chandelier beads.
It looks like a geometrical design, all those meticulously placed spikes.
As you can see on the other pictures, in general the devotees have the main supporting spikes attached to a waistband, but some of them had even these big, thick metal rods in their flesh. That I found quite disturbing.
Apparently the piercing of the cheeks, mouth and tongue is the most painful, so when that skewer is being put in, a small group of men surround the devotee, and shout/scand words in his ears in a loud and rhythmic way. Again...very fascinating.
This devotee carries a wooden Kavadis, as do the ones on the next pics.
So we ve seen spike Kavadis, mouth- and tongue piercings and wooden Kavadis. Another form is the milk pot. Size M or L.
But also sizes S and XS.
There are men that carry a milk pot, often combined with pierced tongue and cheeks.
But it is typically a thing done by women and children.
Oh yes, some men who choose the milk pots, wear them like this man does.
The little milk pots are not necessarily lighter. Not if you hang dozens of them on ur body!
This man manages to hang dozens on his only leg and is gonna walk 4.5 km with that.
Another thing that can be hung on to the body are limes. Here they are already prepared with small ribbons to hang on the hooks.
Yes, some men were actually walking those 4,5 km on spiked sandals! Incredible!
There are small groups of musicians everywhere. To support and accompany the devotee.
This devotee had his own musicians. The lady in the centre had a mic and a textbook and a portable speaker from which she sang to him.
The sari's of the accompanying familymembers were beautiful as usual. I love those full, 'loud' colors!
Being amidst of it all, it does not seem so gruesome anymore. You see no displays of fear, pain or blood. What you DO see is a powerful festivity, full of group support, teamwork, energy and determination in a very colorful form. Really very interesting!