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Thaipusam : Mind Wins Over Matter

“VEL VEL VETRIVEL VEERAVEL

HARO HARA MURUGA”

Ever heard of these chants?  That’s right you are witnessing Thaipusam.  Thaipusam name originated from Thai which is the 10th Tamil month and Pusam is the name of a star. Thaipusam is celebrated when the star is at the highest point in the 10th month of Tamil Calendar.

I witnessed Thaipusam 2016 in Singapore which was held on 23rd and 24th of January.  It was a two day event.  Before going to the details of the event here is the legend behind the festival.

LEGEND: As per Skanda Puran, devas faced terrible cruelty and oppression at the hands of demons, Soorapadam Asura and his brothers Tarakasura and Simhamugan.  They were uncontrollable. All the devas along with Vishnu and Brahma went to Lord Shiva for a solution.  From Lord Shiva’s third eye, Murugan (Subramaniam) was born.  Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva gave Vel (spear) to Murugan to help him destroy these demons.  One by one Murugan and his army defeated all the demons except Soorapadam.  Soorapadam did not give up easily.  He took the form of a big mango tree. Murgan’s Vel split the tree and one part became the peacock and other rooster.  Lord Murugan took the peacock as his vehicle and rooster as his flag.  He defeated and killed Soorapadam on the sixth day of Shashti. Even today Skanda Shashti is celebrated to rejoice victory of good over evil.

During the festival we can see the symbolic significance of Vel (spear), rooster and peacock.

Significance behind the Kavadi Attam:  Kavadi Attam is a ceremonial sacrifice and offering practiced by the devotees during the worship of Lord Murugan.  Devotees carry the kavadi and walk barefoot to Murugan Temple and offer their prayers.  How did it originate?  It all started with this legend.  Lord Shiva entrusted Sage Agastya with two hillocks and asked him to install in South India.  Sage Agastya inturn asked his disciple Idumban to carry on these duties.  Idumban with the help of divine help from Brahma slung the hillocks on his shoulders and left for South India.  On his way, he decided to take rest near Palani (where famous Murugan temple exists).  When he attempted to lift the hillocks again to continue his journey, to his surprise they remained rooted.  Idumban soon realized that this was the work of Lord Murugan.  He prayed and got blessings from Murugan.  Idumban desired for a boon that whoever comes to the hills to worship Lord Murugan with a burden similar to hillocks, his wish would be granted.  Murugan granted his boon.

Since then it became a tradition for the devotees to seek the blessings of Murugan and offer their prayers as a result of thanks giving to the fulfillment of their vows.  They bear the kavadis which roughly weigh around 40-70 kg on their shoulders and walk barefoot to offer their prayers to the lord.

Kavadi is the name from Tamil origin where Kavi means saffron symbolizing purity, aestheticism and Adi means foot signifying pilgrimage.  Kavadi bearers take vow of leading asthetic life, eating satvik food, abstinence from sexual desires or drugs or alcohol, taking bath in cold water and sleeping on floor for a particular period of time (48 days).

There are different types of Kavadis:

  1. PAAL KAVADI:  Carrying pot of fresh cow’s milk on their heads as an offering for their deity.

Paal Kavadi

2. MAYIL KAVADI: Portable altar upto two meters tall decorated with peacock feathers and attached to devotees through 108 vels/ spears pierced into the skin on back and chest.

Mayil Kavadi

3. ALAVU KAVADI: Piercing the tongue or cheeks with spear

Alavu Kavadi

4. VETTE MULLE: Hooks pieced from the back either pulled by another man or being hung from a decorated chariot

5. KOODAM MULLE: Devotees have small hooks pierced on their skin with small pots of milk/vibuthi/kumkum/lime tied to them as offering to the lord.

Koodam Mulle

6. THOL KAVADI: Two semicircular pieces of wood or steel which are bent and decorated with peacock feathers and flowers.

Thol Kavadi

DAY 1 PROCESSION:

Thaipusam 2016 was celebrated in Singapore on 23rd and 24th of January.  It was two day procession where devotees carry kavadis from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple (Little India) and walk bare foot for approximately 4 kms to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Tank Road). We reached the temple on day 1 evening to see the paal kavadi procession.   Streets were blocked. We first entered the temple Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple where they were offering prayers before the devotees proceeded for their walk.  Temple atmosphere was filled with smoke and jam packed with people.

Inside Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

Before bearing the Kavadis, devotees prayed and worshiped the lord.

Prayer inside Sri Srinivasa Perumal TemplePots were filled with fresh cow’s milk and were sealed.

Prayers inside Temple

Paal Kavadi Preparation

Kavadi bearers after taking the blessings put those pots on their heads and marched out of the temple.  Kavadi bearers wear saffron or yellow clothing which is considered auspicious and also symbolizes purity.  They do not put down the kavadi till they reach Sri Thendayuthapani Temple which is 4 kms walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple.  We stepped out of the temple to capture the glimpse of the kavadi bearers coming out of the temple.  It was 2 am in the morning and still we could see people pouring on the streets merely to witness and support the event.  Chants and hymns praising the lord could be heard on the streets.  We also spotted many Chinese and Eurasians too taking part in the Thaipusam.  I was very impressed to see how blended the nation was.  Accepting and taking part in the festivals of different cultures and supporting shows how rich Singaporeans are in their support systems and equality.

Sri Srinivasa Perumal TempleDay 1 Thaipusam

DAY 2 PROCESSION: 

We reached the temple once again at noon on Sunday the next day.  We saw the preparations of Mayil Kavadi. The kavadi was decorated with peacock feathers and images of deities Murugan, Shiva…

Kavadi Preparation

Kavadi Preparation-2

Mayil Kavadi

Before the devotees offer their prayers to the god, they first bathe to cleanse themselves. After they bathe they pray and perform rituals. The devotees smear their bodies with ashes and scalp is rubbed with yellow turmeric and sandalwood paste.  It is believed that the position of the third eye which is between the eyebrows is close to optical nerves.  The saffron paste is smeared in that position to block all the negativity from the evil.  It is also called the hottest spot so sandalwood and saffron paste blocks the spot from heating up and acts as a cooling agent.

When the spears are inserted into the skin of the kavadi bearers, the ashes are smeared on them.  It also acted as an antiseptic. Despite the piercings on skin, back, cheeks, tongue you won’t find a single drop of blood oozing out of the skin nor do you hear any screams from the kavadi bearers.  It is astonishing to see them go through the pain.  Before the insertion of the spikes the committee members of the temple seem to murmur in the ears of the kavadi bearers. They almost seem in trance during the insertion.  We saw few of the kavadi members tying a belt on their waist and holding the kavadi whereas few decided to do it the hard way.  They supported the weight of the kavadi by inserting it on their skin along with 108 spears on their body.  Once the kavadi is inserted they dance in spiritual ecstasy.  Anklets are tied to their feet.  There were few percussionists who were part of the groups.  Few of the kavadi bearers also walked on the shoes with nails as seen below.

 

ThaiposamMounting kavadi

Thaipusam Kavadi

The most painful part to watch is when the kavadi bearers get their cheeks and tongue pierced.  There was not a single scream from them.  Probably the only scream I heard was within me imagining their unbearable pain.  Once they mount their kavadis, we saw few family members taking their blessings. After that they proceed to the Thendayuthapani walking 4 km bare feet.

Kavadi bearer

Once they are at the temple , the priest submits their offerings to Lord Murugan and the spears are removed from the body of the devotees. Ashes are again smeared on the marks. Priests murmur some prayers and release the spiritual trance of the devotees after which they fall straight to the floor oblivious to what is going around them.   What made it interesting was they felt tired but never felt the pain.

Moving with the crowd and witnessing the festival for two days was indeed a liberating experience for me.  I witnessed several emotions, be it the pain of a wife witnessing her husband undergo the piercing or a mother looking at her young son happily dancing in spiritual ecstasy with 108 spears on his body, family members shouting out Murugan hymns loud to support the kavadi devotees.  I still remember the moment when the kavadi was mounted on the man and his old mother walked towards him and touched his head.  Her hand trembled in pain, she blessed him and faced the opposite side of kavadi bearer to wipe her tears.  With her wet eyes she then joined her son to finish the walk of faith.  Thaipusam promises to stir up emotions of pain, anxiety, relief and fulfillment.

 Copyright ©2016, Lakshmi Nair . This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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