Thaipusam

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A young woman carries ritualistic milk in a procession during the Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur. Hindus in India, Malaysia, and Singapore celebrate to mark the birth of Lord Subramaniam, a son of Lord Shiva. AFP/Getty Images.

Thaipusam

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Thaipusam is an annual South Indian festival primarily celebrated by the Tamil-speaking Saivite Hindus of Tamil Nadu. The festival gets its name from its occurrence at the full moon during Thai, the tenth month of the Tamil calendar that runs from the end of January to the beginning of February. Thaipusam is the birthday of Lord Subramaniam (Lord Muruga), who in Hindu mythology is the younger son of Lord Shiva.

Interestingly enough, the event includes some acts of devotion and austerities that many westerners have found offensive; for a while the celebration was even banned in India. However, by the nineteenth century many Tamils had moved to Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of the world, where the British needed laborers. Today, while one may still find celebrations of Thaipusam at the Periyanayaki temple in Palani, India, the most well-known celebrations are held in Penang, Malaysia, and in Singapore.

The festival may extend over a week or more and culminates in an all-day procession. In Singapore it starts at one temple and passes every Tamil temple in the city. In Malaysia, it begins at the Sri Mahamariaman Temple in Chinatown and ends at the Batu Caves. While most in the community take part in the processional, a few, mostly young adult males, engage in the more memorable part of the procession. Their actions are the result of a belief that the way to salvation is best found by enduring a time of penance and pain. They spend a month of preparation before the day of the procession. This preparation begins with a ritual bath and entrance into a trancelike state. Then, still early in the day, they have their bodies pierced with a number of fishhooks. Once in place, a large platform, the kavadi, is lifted onto each person’s shoulders; lines are attached to it with hooks. A young man undergoing this ritual then carries the kavadi along the processional route. This event, now widely known around the world, attracts many observers.

Upon reaching the end of the route, which in Malaysia is a set of steps leading to the main temple in the caves at the top, the men lay down the kavadi and some experienced assistants help with the removal of the hooks while a priest chants. The wounds are treated with hot ash, and those who participate in the ritual surprisingly suffer no scarring from their ordeal.

Sources:

Collins, Elizabeth Fuller. Pierced by Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. De Kalb, IL: Southeast Asia Publications, 1997.
Hullet, Arthur. “Thaipusam and the Cult of Subramaniam,” Orientations 9 (1978): 27–31.
Ward, Colleen. “Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Psychoanthropological Analysis of Ritual Trance, Ceremonial Possession and Self-mortification Practices,” Ethos 12 (1984): 4.

Thaipusam (Thai Poosam)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: January-February for three days
Where Celebrated: India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Africa, Mauritius
Symbols and Customs: Kavadi (Kavadee)

ORIGINS

The Thaipusam festival is part of the traditions of Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Thaipusam is one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals and marks the birthday of Lord Subramaniam (Subramanya), second son of the goddess Parvati. Hindus show their devotion to Subramaniam in a number of ways on this day, many of which involve testing their ability to withstand physical pain (see KAVADI ).

In Malaysia, the highlight of the festival is the procession from Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves about eight miles away. The statue of Subramanya is decorated with jewels and finery and placed on an elaborately carved chariot drawn by bullocks. The devotees who join in the procession through the main streets of the city to the caves chant the slogan, vel-vel, vetri-vel-a reference to the lance (vel) that Parvati gave to her son. The statue is later carried up the 272 steps to the cave and placed beside the permanent statue kept there. The next day, about one million devotees begin to pay homage, while movies, carousels, and other entertainments are provided for their amusement. Temporary sheds are erected to house the worshippers who have traveled a great distance and must stay there during the threeday festival.

Self-inflicted torture is part of the celebration of Thaipusam in some countries, particularly among the Tamil people in Mauritius and in Durban, South Africa.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Kavadi (Kavadee)

The most extreme way of showing devotion to Subramanya during Thaipusam is known as "kavadi-carrying." A kavadi is a wooden arch on a wooden base, decorated with flowers, peacock feathers, and paper. It is carried on the devotee's shoulders, with various food offerings tied to the arch or balanced on the base. The kavadi bearers prepare for their ordeal by abstaining from all meat and sex during the ten days preceding the festival. Before they begin their journey, they undergo a special ceremony to put them in a trance-like state. Then they subject themselves to various degrees of physical torture, which may include having their upper bodies symmetrically pierced with vels (lances) and skewers thrust through their cheeks and tongues. Thaipusam

The procession begins, with the devotees carrying the kavadis on their shoulders. Some draw a small chariot behind them by means of chains fixed to hooks dug into their sides; others wear sandals studded with nails. In some areas, as many as 600-800 kavadis appear in the procession, and the people carrying them are usually in a state of utter frenzy or exhaustion by the time they deposit their burdens at the feet of the statue of Subramanya.

Some Hindus believe that carrying the kavadi washes away sins through self-inflicted suffering. Others see it as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Most Hindus who choose to carry the kavadi during this festival do so to achieve a desired objective or to pay back the gods for helping them avoid a calamity. Someone who has recently recovered from a life-threatening illness, or who has finally given birth to a child, for example, may take a vow to bear kavadi on Thaipusam day.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

WEB SITE

Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board www.visitmalaysia.com/holthaipusam.html

Thaipusam (Thai Poosam)

January-February; three to 12 days in Hindu month of Magha
Thaipusam is a dramatic Hindu festival celebrated in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Africa, Mauritius, and elsewhere. The day marks the birthday and victory of the Hindu god Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugar, over the demons, and is a time of penance and consecration to the god, usually involving self-mortification in a test of mind over pain.
In Malaysia, the festival is a public holiday in the states of Perak, Penang, and Selangor. In Georgetown, Penang, a statue of Subramaniam—covered with gold, silver, diamonds, and emeralds—is taken from the Sri Mariamman temple along with his consorts, Valli and Theivanai, and placed in a silver chariot. Then begins a grand procession to his tomb in the Batu Caves, near the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where the statue is carried up 272 steep steps, and placed beside the permanent statue kept there. The next day about 200,000 people begin to pay homage, while movies, carousels, and other entertainments are provided for their amusement.
The most intense form of penance and devotion is the carrying of kavadee —a wooden arch on a wooden platform—which the Tamil people of Mauritius practice in a unique way—much more elaborately and solemnly than in other countries. Devotees, both male and female, abstain from meat and sex during the sacred 10 days before the festival. Each day they go to the temple ( kovil ) to make offerings, and in Port Louis, at Arulmigu Sockalingam Meenaatchee Amman Kovil, Murugar and his two consorts are decorated differently each day to depict episodes in the deity's life.
On the eve of the celebration, devotees prepare their kavadees and decorate them with flowers, paper, and peacock feathers. They may be built in other shapes, such as a peacock or temple, but the arch is most common. The next morning, priests pour cow milk into two brass pots and tie them to the sides of each kavadee. Fruits, or jagger (a coarse, brown sugar made from the East Indian palm tree), may also be placed on the platform. Then religious ceremonies are performed at the shrines to put the bearers in a trance. When ready, penitents have their upper bodies pierced symmetrically with vels, the sacred lance given to Lord Subramaniam by his mother, Parvati; some also have skewers driven through their cheeks, foreheads, or tongues.
The procession then begins, with the devotees carrying the kavadees on their shoulders. Some penitents draw a small chariot by means of chains fixed to hooks dug into their sides; some walk to the temple on sandals studded with nails. Groups of young men and women follow, singing rhythmic songs. Each region may have 40 to 100 kavadees, but in places like Port Louis there may be 600 to 800. At the temple, the kavadee is dismounted, the needles and skewers removed by the priest, and the milk in the pots—which has stayed pure—is poured over the deity from head to foot. The penitents then go out and join the crowds.
Some believe carrying the kavadee washes away sins through self-inflicted suffering; others say the kavadee symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
In Durban, South Africa, these rites last 12 days and are also performed during Chitray Massum in April-May.
CONTACTS:
Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board
818 W. 7th St., Ste. 970
Los Angeles, CA 90017
800-336-6842 or 213-689-9702; fax: 213-689-1530
www.visitmalaysia.com
Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
Air Mauritius Centre, Fl. 11
5, President John Kennedy Street
Port Louis, Mauritius
230-210-1545; fax: 230-212-5142
www.mauritius.net
SOURCES:
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 100
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 132
HolSymbols-2009, p. 948
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