Thaipusam: 5 things to know about the colourful Hindu festival

Thaipusam: 5 things to know about the colourful Hindu festival

The Hindu Endowments Board announced on Jan 28 that the annual Thaipusam Festival procession will begin at 12.05am on Feb 3 this year.

At the start time, devotees carrying milk pots can begin their walk of faith from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road, which will start receiving milk offerings from 12.30am on the same day.

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival which honours the victory of deity Lord Murugan over demon hordes. Devotees seek blessings and fulfil their vows by carrying kavadis - intricate structures of steel and wood which incorporate sharp body piercings - and milk pots as offerings.

Here are five facts about the colourful and dynamic festival you may not have known.

1. The word Thaipusam is derived from the 10th month in the Tamil calendar called "thai" and pusam meaning "when the moon is at its brightest". It is thus celebrated when the moon is full in the Tamil month of Thai (between January and February).

2. Besides being acknowledged as a symbol of virtue, bravery, youth and beauty, the Hindus believe that Lord Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam, is also the universal dispenser of favours. Hence, some who have made vows and pledges to Lord Subramaniam prove their gratitude to him by undergoing self-mortification on Thaipusam day.

3. The men can choose to carry the kavadi which means "sacrifice at every step". The act of carrying the kavadi is the most distinctive act during Thaipusam. Lemons on metal hooks are hooked directly onto the bodies of the men. They are also pierced with other sharp objects.

The kavadi is typcically made of aluminium, and covered with coloured and peacock feathers, with the symbol of Lord Murugan at the top. Kavadis can reach three to four metres in height, and weigh at least 30kgs.

Kavadi bearers generally report that they do not feel pain while carrying the structures, as they are in a spiritual trance. Most women carry milk pots, and also may have their tongues pierced.

4. There is more than one legend behind Thaipusam. No matter what the legend, the rites that are followed are fairly similar. On Thaipusam day, devotees make offerings to Lord Murugan for eradicating the ills that afflict them. Here is one that is popularly narrated, according to an explanation on the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple website:

The great Saint, Agasthya, instructed his student, Idumban to uproot two hills called Sivagiri and Shakthigiri belonging to Lord Murugan and bring it back to him. As commanded, Idumban flew to Mount Kailai Range where the hills rested and picked them up ready to fly back.

But alas, Lord Murugan had other plans. He wanted to test Idumban's mettle and devotion to his master. He reduced his size to that of a small child and promptly stood atop one of the hills. Suddenly Idumban found that he could not carry the hills anymore.

To his bewilderment, a child was standing haughtily on the hill. Idumban humbly requested the boy to get down. When the child refused, Idumban flew into a rage and tried to attack him, only to find himself falling like an injured bird.

Lord Murugan then reverted to his original self and appeared before Idumban. "I am pleased with your courage and determination," he said. "Your devotion to your guru is admirable. I now bestow on you the honour of being my guardian"

Lord Murugan then proclaimed that henceforth, those who carried kavadis to see him, would receive his blessings. Today, thousands of Hindus carry kavadis as offerings to the Lord during Thaipusam. According to this legend, the kavadis symbolize the hills of burden that Idumban shouldered.

5. The kavadi-bearer observes strict celibacy. Only pure, Sattwic food, which is believed to lead to clarity of mind and physical health, are taken. These foods are devoid of stimulants such as caffeine and chocolate. He will also abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs. In addition, he observes a 24-hour fast on the eve of Thaipusam.

Sources: National Library Board e-resources, Chettiars' Temple Society, Singapore

This article was first published on January 28, 2015.
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