One of our first stops in Penang was Little India. While we were exploring the area, many people were so excited to share with us that the Thaipusam (pronounced “tai-poo-sam” ) festival was happening that weekend, February 7th through the 9th 2020.
We thought let’s go to the festival since we knew nothing about it, and it would give us an opportunity to experience something new. While looking up the location of the festival on the internet we discovered that Penang has one of the largest Thaipusam festivals in the world.
When we got to Maha Shi Mariamman temple at 3:30 people were celebrating with excitement thumping drumbeats, chanting and preparing devotees to carry the Kavadis to the new waterfall temple, Arulmigu Balthandayuthapani Kovil in Penang.
Devotees pierce their cheeks with spears and put hooks through their skin. Once pierced the devotees prepare to carry the Kavadi which is a semicircular, decorated canopy supported by a wooden or metal arch with elaborate decorations, which is placed on the devotee’s shoulder. A Kavadi can weigh as much as 100 kilograms and are typically affixed to a person’s body using sharp metal spikes dug into the skin, they walk barefoot in the hot cement from one temple to the other to show their devotion. It is a ceremonial sacrifice and offering practiced by devotees during the worship of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. This is the central part of the festival of Thaipusam.
Once the devotee was ready for the pilgrimage, some worshippers walked quietly by their side reciting prayers, while others went into trances. Other supporters held devotees back by ropes tied onto hooks pierced in rows down their backs, yet others thumped loud drum beats, dancing and chanting in this colorful procession. We saw yellow-robed worshippers carrying offerings of milk and coconuts.
Smashing coconuts is another ritual we witnessed at the Maha Shi Mariamman temple. We spotted worshipers throwing coconuts onto the ground, smashing them with such great force and splattering them all over the street. It was explained to us that the act of smashing a coconut abruptly signifies making a wish for future betterment. It also suggests you throw away bad luck from the past. It allows participants to fulfill their oath to god and arrive before him at the temple as pure as the sacred fruit.
As this pilgrimage moves through the streets, dancing, chanting and drumming, you see the sense of inner peace on their face and devotion.
Thaipusam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil community of southern India. This festival is celebrated during the Tamil solar month Thai. The festivity is a representation of when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (a divine spear) to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam. It is a festival of purification that celebrates the cleansing of all sins, penance, and thanksgiving for blessings received. Thaipusam is also a day of fulfilling promises and repentance.
At times of the piercing was a bit intense for us, but we were so excited to be present during this festivity and so happy we experienced this festival and the different rituals. I walked away saying to Philipp “now that’s a show of faith”
Over a million people attended the three-day Thaipusam celebrations in Penang this year. Since this year fell on a weekend, it brought out even larger crowds than usual to the pilgrimage. Plus, Penang’s festivities featured a new golden chariot as part of the procession exciting the crowds even more.
During the colonial times, the British East India Company brought many people from Tamil areas of southern India to work for them in Malaysia. Penang boasted a tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance allowing the Tamil community to thrive. Malaysian Indians form the 5th largest community of Indians overseas in the world.