Thaipusam is a three day Hindu holiday/festival that takes place in the Tamil month of Thai, which is January/February. It is the annual processions by devotees offering thanks. It is a major holiday for the Hindu people on Penang.
It is celebrated to honor Lord Subrahmanya also known as Lord Murugan. He is a god that represents virtue, youth, and power to Hindu devotees. He is the destroyer of evil. The legend says a long time ago the world was torn apart by wars between celestial beings called Devas and the evil forces called Asuras. The Devas paid homage to Lord Shiva (he is one of the three major Gods) asking him for his protection. He agreed to act on their behalf and opened his central eye on his forehead. He radiated sparks of fire and through this Lord Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva appeared.
The most powerful of the Asuras was called Soorapadme, he needed to be defeated. Lord Murugan was armed by Lord Shiva with a golden spear. He battled Soorapadme and won. He transformed half of him into a peacock and chariot and the other half into a rooster.
The festival of Thaipusam celebrates the struggle of good over evil and evil’s eventual defeat on earth. In Penang Thaipusam is celebrated at the Thannirmalai Arulmigu Blathandayuthapani Temple also called the Temple on Waterfall Road. On the first day of the festival, which is the eve of Thaipusam a silver chariot, pulled by two bulls (which are changed out throughout the day), with statue of Lord Marugan on it. The Chariot leaves from another temple in George Town at 6am and makes a procession through town to the hill side Temple on Waterfall Road. It makes stops along the way so that offerings that people are taking to the temple can be blessed. It reaches it’s destination around midnight. The same chariot has been making is way through Georgetown for the last 122 years, they have been making the Thaipusam procession for the last 230 years. The chariot stays at the temple for the entire next day, which is the actual holiday of Thaipusam. It makes it way back through town beginning at midnight and gets back to the temple it started from around dawn.
This is the temple that they are making their procession to. It is 500 steps to the top and people carry offerings of fruit, flowers, incense and milk to the top. There are about 800,000 people that celebrate Thaipusam here in Penang.
On the Thursday before Thaipusam the small temple that is tucked between the mall that our building is attached to and the mall next door, had fire walkers. It was supposed to begin around 7, but you know Malaysian time…..We got to see the preparation for it, but didn’t get to see any actual fire walking, because B needed bed time in a bad way. He was not as impressed as we were.
Saturday, which is the eve of Thaipusam we walked from our condo to the festivities. It is a longish walk but we did not want to deal with parking in all that craziness, that was a smart move, there were a whole lot of people there already and it only got more crowded as the night progressed. Along the way we came across 2 cows in a random field. This is not something you usually come across in central Penang. We found out later they change the cows out that pull the chariot periodically during the day. I am pretty sure these guys were spare chariot bull.
One of things that goes along with Thaipusam is free food. All of the food is vegetarian because the Hindu devotees fast (meaning eat no meat) for this festival. There are booths set up along the procession route leading up to the temple. Local businesses set up the booths and give out food, there is also dancing and entertainment. The booths are decorated beautifully everyone is dressed up. The saris and clothes we saw were beautiful.
You will see lots of piles of coconuts as you walk along. Prior to the silver chariot arriving to an area people pick up the coconuts and throw them in the street. Thaipusam is celebrated all over the world, but the silver chariot and the coconuts are specific to Penang. One source I read said the breaking of the coconuts symbolizes the shattering of one’s ego in the pursuit of self realization. Another source said the coconuts actually came from the Chinese on the island. To them the coconut is a symbol of good luck – just another example of the merging of cultures that happens in Penang.
Here are some of the sites along the processional route.
There were some really neat dance performances as we went along.
There was also a Chinese Style Lion Dance.
Along with the dancing and loud music there are also devotees that participate in The Kavadi Attam. The Kavadi Attam is the ceremonial sacrifice and offering that is preformed by the devotees. The Kavadi is a physical burden through which devotees ask for help from Lord Murugan. It doesn’t seem that everyone participates in this part the same way. The people that do participate prepare themselves through prayer and fasting. Kavadi bearers have to preform elaborate ceremonies at the time they assume the Kavadi. Also for the month before Thaipusam, they observe celibacy, only take pure Satvik food once a day (special vegetarian, including milk), and think only of God, nothing else. It is a time of reflection and meditation. On the day of the festival they engage in various acts of devotion. This can range from caring a pot of milk on their head for the entire procession route, to piercing the tongue, cheek, or back to caring a canopy on their shoulders to the temple.
We met the Chariot about 8 pm finally. It was quite a site. We got to meet a few people while we waited.
One of the reasons it takes so long for the chariot to get to the temple is because it stops every couple of feet and people pass up things to be blessed that they are taking to the temple.
Here are our bulls pulling the chariot.
This is the generator truck that follows the chariot so it can be lit up.
The coconuts get thrown in the street prior to the chariot arriving. In order for the chariot to get through the street the coconuts are cleaned up with a small bulldozer. When the bulldozer arrives the people know it is time to throw the coconuts. I am short and it was crazy packed, everyone wants to throw the coconuts so I didn’t get many shots of it.
We had a fabulous time at the Thaipusam festival. It is by far one of the more interesting things we have gotten to do while we have been here. The atmosphere was great, the weather was fabulous. All in all it was a really good time. When we got back to the house we got a shot of the Temple all lit up with the processions going up the hill towards it. You can see it from our back balcony, it is one of my favorite parts of our view.