If you are in Singapore during the month of January, you should not miss out on one of the best festivals ever. It’s weird. It’s scary. It can capture your deepest imaginations. But Thaipusam is something that you should see atleast once in your life.
I have lived in Chennai for 3 years, but I did not, even once, get to see the Thaipusam festival there, despite the festival being centred around the Tamils. I had to get all the way to Singapore, before I saw it for the first time last year.
A little background could help here. For the tamil population, one of the chief hindu gods is Murugan. He is said to have been born at a time when demons (asuras) were winning against the gods, and all the gods turned to Shiva, to create a strong leader. Moved by their solemn prayers, Shiva created Murugan who then led the gods to defeat the asuras. And in homage to him, tamils across the world celebrate Thaipusam, with the intention of praying to Murugan to receive his grace so that bad traits are deleted.
Its not only the intention, but the prayer itself, that makes this festival fascinating to the outside world. First, the devotees have to be mentally ‘cleansed’, and they do this by fasting for a couple of days before the actual thaipusam. And the Kavadi-beares have even more elaborate preparations, and also need to observe celibacy before the festival.
Now, the word ‘Kavadi’ literally means ‘burden’ in Tamil. Contrary to popular belief in India, a Kavadi need not be an elaborate canopy carried on the shoulders, which is the most common type. Even the simplest of burdens, like carrying a pot of milk on your head, is a kavadi. Or it could even be something extreme like piercing your tongue and skin with small sharp objects called ‘vels’. These spears are said to prevent the person from speaking, thus making them stronger.
So at some stage of the year, the kavadi-bearer would have prayed to Murugan for something he wanted, with the promise of bearing a kavadi during thaipusam in return. And they come to keep their end of the promise. While thaipusam is also celebrated in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, I will talk more about the Singapore version, which I saw firsthand. This is important, because Singapore actually has laws relating to what kind of kavadi can be carried. In neighbouring Malaysia, devotees tend to carry dozens of coconuts which are supported by a single hook that is pierced through their skin. In Singapore, this can’t be larger than a lemon.
There is no fixed time for the Thaipusam. Starting from early sunrise, devotees start from the Sri Srinivasa perumal temple in Serangoon road. The kavadis may require some time to set up, especially if they involve heavy objects or a lot of hooking. Carrying their Kavadis, the devotees then walk nearly 4.5 Kms to reach the Sri Thandayuthapan temple in Tank road. Many faint on the way, especially in the afternoon heat. And almost all are assisted by their family to complete the walk.
By evening, note that the crowd gets a little unruly, because of all the alcohol that is consumed by then. But then, this is Singapore. Nothing serious ever happens here, or nothing to be worried about as well. Nevertheless, the morning hours are the best to enjoy the Thaipusam in all its colours and glory.