Malaysia prides itself as a multi-racial country with a mix of colourful customs and cultures. Being Malaysian also means we get to celebrate and experience different festivals of other races first-hand. This January 31st, our Hindu friends will be celebrating Thaipusam. Most non-Hindus know that it is a celebration for Hindus and that it is a public holiday. But do you know the story behind this celebration?
Thaipusam is derived from the words Thai which is referring to the Tamil month of Thai somewhere in January-February, and Pusam which means the brightest star during the month. This festival commemorates the day when Goddess Pavarti gave her son, Lord Murugan, an invincible lance with which he destroyed evil demons. Therefore, Thaipusam serves as a celebration of the victory of the Good over the Evil. It is also a gratitude ritual, giving thanks to the Lord Murugan for granting their wishes and prayers to overcome their hardships such as career blocks, illnesses, or even infertility. Not only that, devotees will also ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoings and for blessings as well.
Gifts to the God, Lord Murugan
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When one’s prayer or wish has been granted, he or she will prepare Thaipusam offerings to be given to the God to show and express their gratitude. Hindu devotees will carry milk pots or paal kudam on their heads to take part in the offerings ceremony in Batu Caves. Apart from that, many devotees will carry a kavadi with metal prongs piercing their skins. These devotees with extreme piercings say that they do not feel any pain because they are highly spiritual and in a devotional trance which brings them closer to Lord Murugan.
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One of the things that devotees would do during Thaipusam is to shave their heads. This is a symbol of gratitude as well as a genuine repentance of the believers. It could also represent the process of being reborn anew and clearing oneself of impurities. Therefore, devotees or young kids who are not able to carry kavadi, will opt to shave their heads instead.
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Devotees will fast 48 days before Thaipusam in order to purge themselves of all mental and physical impurities. They can choose to follow a complete fasting or eat one simple vegetarian meal or fruits and milk a day. It is believed that fasting would help them enhance their spiritual growth.
The dos and don’ts
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Thaipusam is all about celebration and devotion to the God. Therefore, devotees have to make sure that they are physically, mentally, and spiritually pure enough to perform the rituals. 48 days before Thaipusam, devotees must refrain themselves from smoking cigarettes, alcohol or other intoxicants. They also have to sleep on the floor as a form of respect and humbleness, with constant morning and evening poojas, prayers, chanting mantras, reading spiritual books, and remembrance of the Lord Murugan.
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Devotees will climb up the flight of stairs that consist of 272 steps which leads to the cave, and that includes the kavadi bearers as well. Once inside the cave, a priest will apply holy ash on the forehead of the devotee and chant prayers. This marks the end of the ritual and it is believed that at this point, devotees will regain consciousness and released from their state of trance. Sometimes, devotees will collapse but strength seeps in with time.
As non-Hindus but fellow Malaysians, we should always respect each other’s traditions, customs, and cultures. Every year, hundreds and thousands of devotees and tourists flock to Batu Caves during Thaipusam. Non-followers are actually allowed to be there at Batu Caves to witness this colourful and eye-opening festival in person. But, always be mindful to not be in the way of the devotees. Do not be in their face or block their way just so you could take an Instagram-worthy picture. Remember, be considerate and respectful!