The documentary I watched is about Thaipusam festival. I watched it on National Geographic Channel and was amazed to discover the meaning, the process and the traditions and practices of Thaipusam. It was interesting to watch the procession yet at the same time learn more about it in detail.
Every January/February, depending upon the lunar month – on a full-moon day in the Tamil month of Thai, the Hindus will celebrate Thaipusam in honour of their Hindu God, Lord Subramaniam (sometimes referred to as Lord Murugan) who is a son of the Hindu God Shiva. He is believed to represent virtue, youth and power.
As mentioned in the documentary, Thaipusam is celebrated in Singapore and also in Malaysia, although it does not occur in India, which is rather strange to me. Thaipusam is important to the Hindus, as they believe that it reinforces the solidarity of the minority Hindu community and symbolises the eternal struggle between good and evil. This festival is known for the devotees who fulfil vows by shaving their heads bald or performing rituals. Some have their cheeks, chest and tongue pierced with flesh hooks or thin sharp spear like metal rods that looks more like skewers. Personally, I find the piercing ritual rather horrifying as it was a gory scene with lots of blood. Some of the devotees carry milk pots, while some carry a ‘Kavadi’. The ‘Kavadi’ is a large festive structure, made of aluminium, covered with colour and peacock feathers. It symbolises a mountain, with an effigy of Murugan at the top. Some ‘Kavadi’ can reach 3-4 metres in height. Others pull wheeled altars that are attached to the back by hooks. They all involve some form of body piercing. As they are said to be in a trance, there is no pain of piercing such stuff on their bodies. But as a viewer, it was rather painful for my sight.
Young devotees as early as the age of 9 also participates in this festival, they have to go for a thorough bath during the pre-ceremonial preparations to cleanse themselves physically and also spiritually. Preparations start as early as 1am in the morning. These acts of ultimate devotion are performed to repay a debt. The devotees make a private deal with Murugan, and vow to perform the ritual annually for 3, 5 or 7 years – sometimes even longer. After a month of fasting and abstinence, which includes daily meditation, a vegetarian diet and sleeping on a bare floor, they gather in the early hours of the morning to commence the festival.
Devotees are believed to attain a level of physical and mental harmony that ensures no bleeding takes place or any pain is felt.
The Thaipusam festival that I saw on National Geographic took place in Malaysia, in a place called Batu Caves. It is one of the favorite tourist spot today in Malaysia. Situated at 12 km north of Kuala Lumpur. Discovered over a hundred years ago, the caves consist of three caves formed by the massive limestone natural formations. The most impressive and largest of the three caves is the Temple Cave, which has 272 steps to climb to the top. And that was where the Thaipusam procession took place. It was overcrowded with Hindus and tourists and it was smoky with incense as seen on the television and I thought to myself that luckily I was not there jostling with the crowd.
After watching the documentary, I had a clearer view and understanding of Thaipusam which has always puzzled me since young as a boy, living in Singapore and watching the Thaipusam procession passed me by for so many years without knowing exactly and clearly what it means to the Hindu community.