Last year, a friend from Canada came to Malaysia and was in the country in time for the Thaipusam holiday. She’d already made plans to go to Batu Caves, one of the main hubs of the celebration, to observe the procession and asked me if I’d ever been. I had to confess that I’d never gone to Batu Caves to participate in the Thaipusam celebrations. Thaipusam is one of those festivals that I wish I knew more about and since the celebrations started yesterday, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share what I do know already and also what I recently found out:
#1. We get a holiday – Any festival that results in a holiday is a worthy one to celebrate, in my books. However, not all of the states in Malaysia declares Thaipusam a holiday so boo hoo to those states that have to work on Thaipusam.
#2. Batu Caves becomes a sea of people – The Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple located at Batu Caves (or Rock Caves) is one of the main places where Thaipusam is celebrated. There’ll be masses of people, locals and tourists alike. Apparently, this year, 1.6 million people are expected at Batu Caves.
#3. It starts with a procession – The night before Thaipusam, Hindus gather at the Sri Mahamariaman Temple along Jalan Tun HS Lee (Chinatown/ Petaling Street area). From there they will leave around midnight on a 15 kilometer (approximately 8 hour) walk. During this procession, devotees pull a golden/ silver chariot. Penang, another location that celebrates Thaipusam on a grand scale, apparently has a golden AND a silver chariot procession this year.
#4. There are piercings everywhere – During this festival, devotees choose to honour Lord Murugan by the carrying of kavadi. I’ve always thought that the kavadi refers only to the elaborate framework that is attached to the devotees bodies via hooks or piercings. Now, I know that a kavadi can also refer to a metal pot filled with milk, carried on the head or shoulders. Seeing a kavadi-bearer pierced multiple times can be pretty gruesome.
#5. Coconuts are everywhere too – A whole lot of coconut smashing goes down during Thaipusam as well. The coconut is an auspicious fruit for Hindus and apparently, the action of smashing a coconut on the street is to cleanse the street before the chariot passes through. This year, an additional one million coconuts had to be imported from Indonesia to cater for the demand during Thaipusam.
This video from National Geographic shows how Thaipusam is celebrated in Malaysia (Warning: Piercings pretty much dominate)