In Photos: Thaipusam festival in Singapore 3

A devotee at the Thaipusam festival in Singapore

Who cares about the pain, when you are feeling brave in your own skin?

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.

Vels used in Thaipusam

A family member preparing vels. That thing is going to break some flesh!

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.

Kavadi in Thaipusam festival

Kavadis can be as elaborate as this, involving multiple sharp objects piercing the body.

Another kind of Kavadi.

Another kind of Kavadi, attaching small pots with water or milk on your skin. Ouch!

Extreme kavadis in Thaipusam

And then, there are the really extreme kavadis. double ouch!

The simplest of Kavadis in Thaipusam.

Thankfully there are also some simple kavadis like this, which involve carrying a pot on one’s head.

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.

The mystery of the lemon in thaipusam.

You’ll see this scene almost everywhere in thaipusam, with people holding a lemon. Supposedly, the lemon will help to release some of the pain. Don’t ask me how.

Lemon-piercings in thaipusam.

Or attaching lemons to the piercing on the mouth, and looking totally bad-ass!

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.

Silanga during the Thaipusam.

Most devotees put an anklet, called silanga, on their legs while walking through the thaipusam.

Piercing during the Thaipusam.

Supposedly, piercing your mouth or tongue, is seen as a test of endurance, by not talking to anyone.

Thaipusam piercings.

Wish one of my ex-girlfriends had tried this!

After all those sharp ends through his skin, yeah, he can call himself a tiger!

After all those sharp ends through his skin, yeah, he can call himself a tiger!

At the end of it all, most of the devotees are completely lost in their own prayers.

At the end of it all, most of the devotees are completely lost in their own prayers.

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.


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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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