Thaipusam - 2014
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival to celebrate and to give thanks to the Hindu God, Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan) son of Lord Siva. It is a celebration of faith and atonement, of family and friends, and of devotion.
This is my third year going to the Thaipusam festival in Singapore. Last year, D, Helena, and I were invited to walk with a family where it was the young man's first time participating in the walk as a devotee (click here to see photos). It was an amazing experience, but unfortunately we did not exchange information so we lost contact with the family.
In the beginning of this year, I received an email from Vans' (the young man we walked with last year) sister (Kas)... he had been looking at photos on the Internet and found some of himself. When he clicked on the photo, it took him to our blog! The family not only asked us to walk with them again, but they also invited us to their home two nights before the walk for a special vegetarian meal. During the evening, they honored lord Murugan with fruit, and blessed Vans' headpiece and spears. Their mother cooked all the food and it was delicious.
Lord Murugan is regarded as a destroyer of evil and preserver of good and the festival marks his victory for conquering evil. He is usually depicted with a spear or vel. This is why the devotees pierce silver spears or vels in various sizes through the skin of their back, cheek, and tongue.
Before the walk - preparation at the temple
Here Vans is with his posse. They are close friends who will help him through his devotional walk. As a devotee, Vans had to grow his beard. This year, he had two of these friends play drums.
Vans' father is helping him prepare to carry the kavadi, which means, "sacrifice at every step".
Next all of the spears are put in place. Family and friends do the piercings. And they do go through his skin. Most devotees pierce themselves, as they believe it will please Lord Murugan and he will fulfill their wishes.
I really like this photo of Vans. It was taken shortly before he underwent the piercing to his tongue. Devotees pierce their tongue and cheeks to help them meditate and to stay silent.
The piercing, which I have now seen many times, still amazes me ... how there is not any blood. And they do not leave any scars. Holy ash is placed on the needle before the piercing. They say it is the sacred ash that prevents pain, bleeding, scarring, and infection. Some say it is made of burnt cow dung, which has medicinal features and contains a styptic, similar to the shaving pencil that constricts blood vessels to stop shaving cuts from bleeding.
It is truly a family affair; his sister decorated his kavadi with a little bling.
Their neighbor, who was also at the dinner we attended, was next to Vans, preparing for his own devotional walk. I have some really good photos of his piercing on last year's post.
The photo below shows Vans as he begins to balance his kavadi. They are usually decorated with flowers and peacock feathers, but you will see other things. Vans' weighed 50 pounds!
Some of the kavadis can be quite tall and weigh up to 100 pounds.
It is believed that carrying the kavadi washes away sins through self-inflicted suffering.
The procession starts at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and ends at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. It is a 3-mile walk and everyone, including us, must go in bare feet. There is one other option, to walk it on spiked shoes. It took us about 5 hours for the entire walk.
All ages walk in the procession demonstrating many different forms of worship. I have to say, we felt very special, as we did not see any other westerners in the actual parade.
There is quite a bit of chanting and singing as you walk along the procession. This is to help support and encourage the devotee through his pilgrimage. I think Vans' dad (below) sang and danced the most. I even got into it this year - yes dancing and singing!
Each devotee will also dance along the way, especially when they pass by a temple. Here is a clip of Vans dancing and all of us singing!
Limes, which are hung from hooks on the devotee backs, represent protection by the deities.
Other devotees fulfill their vows by carrying Paal Kudam (milk pots), which or represents the burden they are carrying either for themselves or their family. In the end, the milk is given to the temple as an offering.
The family carried the jug pictured below. Helena and I even had our turn at carrying it. At the very end, we all ate a handful of the special fruit mixture their father made. The mixture is called panchaamirtham and it means five immortal substances and includes five special ingredients - dates, cashew nut, banana, honey, and ghee.
Devotees usually wear yellow, which is said the have been Murugan's favorite color. It is also the color worn to mark any religious festival in Hinduism.
The big hooks below are for pulling a chariot.
The chariot is the green structure, they are very heavy.
The forehead is considered the center of the mind and by piercing it, devotees refrain from evil thoughts.
Women, Children, and Family
Very few women pierce. I was talking to one young woman who did it last year but her Hindu boyfriend told her he did not want her to do it again this year.
Clean-shaven heads covered with sandalwood paste is a symbol of humility and atonement. Sandalwood is also depicted as purity.
Many devotes, especially families, will each carry a pot of milk on their head to show devotion and love to the god. Most hold them up with both hands and they never put their arm down for a rest. This young girl was behind us in the procession and she kept her eyes closed the entire time.
Many devotees who do not participate in the procession will still shave their heads to honor Lord Murugan.
The photo below is near the end... you can see the exhaustion in Vans' face. It is very difficult when you reach the entrance of the final temple, as you have to wait in line for nearly two hours; the entire time the men countinue to support the heavy kavatis. Many men sat down on chairs, but Vans refused to rest. I thought for sure he was going to pass out - but he stayed strong. It was so amazing to experience this with him.
When you enter the temple, the devotee does his final dance. Where they get the energy to do this is beyond comprehension. We were completely exhausted at the end, and we did not have to carry anything (nor did we fast for 48 hours like the devotees).
The final step in his journey was to kneel down and pray at the temple. This concluded a long but rewarding day.
I'll end this post with some fun group Shots...
Vans' Family Photos
Brother and Sister
Mother and Daughter
Mother and Son
Thank you Vans, Kas, and your parents for allowing us to be part of your special day... giving us memories we will never forget!
This is my favorite photo - after a grueling journey, Vans is as energetic and happy as can be!