Monday, February 20

Thaipusam 2006 (Sungai Petani); A Flashback and A Celebration

There are many defining moments in life that we wish we never forget. Some are truly amazing and worth sharing. My earliest memories of the Thaipusam celebrations come from when I was five years old. Well that’s as far back as my grandma helped me remember. (Thaipusam is a grand festival celebrated mainly by south Indians (Tamils) and their Diaspora around the world in the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar. In Malaysia, this colorful and spirited celebration has been continuing for more than a hundred years at the many Murugan temples around the country. Batu Caves in Selangor is one of the most important places in the world where the tradition is practiced by more that a million devotees. The Arulmigu Bala Thandayithapani Temple in Penang and Sri Subramaniar Swami Devastanam in Sungai Petani also sees the gathering of hundreds of thousands of devotees every year.)

Thaipusam for me is a majestic mix of humanity and age old tradition. It brings deep satisfaction just to witness the complexity of the tradition and at the same time continues to intrigue me on how so much have changed or evolved throughout the years. Twenty years back when I started to understand the world, people had more faith and genuine interest in coming to temples in the early hours and paying their penance with unrivaled concentration. It’s something like surrendering to God, letting the soul float to cleanse ourselves or to ‘ask’ for something. Time just drifts past, sometimes frozen to let people view things that are probably so significant in their lives, but in my eyes everything is simply a magical mix of smoke and colors. Imagine a million incense sticks burning, together with brightly flaming camphor tablets and half cut coconuts in front of devotees drenched in water praying deep to get into trance. As the vague image vibrates, the single devotee suddenly erupts into trance, swaying, dancing and no one does anything actually but to watch him. Then in seconds everyone’s in trance, their minds focused into something or towards God, with devotional songs playing loudly around the temple. I escaped the scene, walked to the temple pond to see more devotees in the waters, immersing themselves fully, preparing to take Palkudams, the hundreds and hundreds of pots of milk to be taken to Lord Muruga, and at one corner children being shaved bald following another unwritten rule to present the God with their first strands of hair. Everywhere I pan that image; there are people, walking past, standing, chanting almost in unison, like millions of electrons, carefully going their way, doing their part to offer their prayers to the invisible God. Imagining that one moment in time brings deep happiness being able to relive culture and also sadness as why I’m still confused of this concept of religion.

Years go by, the Sungai Petani Thaipusam celebrations is a yearly event, marked in everyone’s calendar. Those three days where Indians take over the sleepy town, turning it into a huge carnival. Almost everyone will be at the temple, from every corner of the town, from the estates from all over the state. Thaipusam also means business, and that would explain why I was at the temple every year when I was growing up as a silent witness of my culture. My grandma would open a food stall in the temple compounds and together with dozens of other stalls offer Indian food everyday for the traveling devotees. Thosai never tasted as good as before, nothing does. Those were the times when everyone is a friend, when everyone is an Indians no matter if they’re Chinese or Hindus. We never do go back during Thaipusam, I slept in the temple hall, occasionally waking up when there’s announcements on the PA system of lost children. I never got lost as long as I remembered, and of course if anyone does, the rational thing is to go home and wait for everyone to come back. But it’s another of those ‘events’ when everyone will rush to see the crying little boy or girl struggling to spell out their parents name amid all the attention. And sadly when the parents do come, it was not happy at all because the kid will get a nice spanking for wandering off in the crowd. How do he or she explains the thousands of people jostling around that excited their brave minds. Those little memories. And do you know the food prices will double or triple during the festival. No one really cares, as long as everyone manages to get something out of it, because it happens only once a year.

Thaipusam also means that every criminal and gangster out there will gather to test everyone’s patience. And every year the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) police force will be stationed there to protect everyone. Well, almost everyone because for every Thaipusam that I remember someone will get killed. My uncle mentioned that the police rounded up all the gangsters before the festival and locks them up for a few days to thwart any incidence. Traffic will be a nightmare because certain roads will be closed to enable the Kavadi and Chariot procession. The original route of the procession was much longer and goes into the center of town from the Muniandy Temple and Vinayagar Temple compounds covering almost 4 kilometers before arriving at the Murugan Temple. Nowadays it’s rerouted as to reduce the traffic jams and also control unwanted tragedies. It also marks the thinning crowd as a lot of people visits Penang which has a bigger celebration. It’s all about the people and the feeling of being in a huge crowd I guess. Nowadays there are no more FRU’s for the SP Thaipusam; nearly all of them are stationed at the Penang and Batu Caves. The large force of policemen and plain cloth officers controls the crowd well, but you do feel the tension sometimes when passing the drunken mobs dancing to everything that comes out of the speaker. Mostly songs from Vijay movies and every year there will that one hit Tamil song played over and over that will resonate in your head for weeks to come.

Palkudams are milk pots normally carried within the Murugan temple compounds early in the morning during the three days Thaipusam is celebrated. The female devotees will carry the milk pots or sometimes small kavadi’s with milk pots tied on them. Then there will be devotees walking miles from different towns and sometimes states in that long journey of faith to either Sungai Petani or Penang. There are even people who walk all the way to Batu Caves, 300 miles away, portraying their undying admiration and love to God. It still amazes me to see them walk braving the elements, sometimes wishing I can join them, something I did once years ago when we walked to Penang and something that I would never do again I guess.

Kavadi’s are structures carried by the devotees on that long procession from surrounding temples to the final stop at the Murugan temple. My family, relatives and friends have been carrying Kavadi's for as long as I remember. In those days, the Kavadi's were bigger and taller and richly decorated. The whole family will build the wooden structure for weeks, and decorate it with paper flowers and peacock feathers. I remembered everyone had a huge magnificent Kavadi out for Thaipusam, all my uncles carrying them together on the first day of the celebrations. I will be left in charge of carrying the chair or the drinks basket for them. A proud job for me back then, being the eldest grandson in the family and also because I get to wear a cool new Jippa every year. The procession will be accompanied by a musical troupe playing traditional Indian drums and instruments and also the not so traditional bongo troupe. Bongos are banned nowadays because it became a place to hide the weapons cache for those planning to start a fight. The music itself will be a mix of everything, from folk songs to the latest Tamil cinema songs. The whole group will march from the temple at the evening hours throughout the night accompanied by family and friends, dancing and singing devotional songs. There used to be hundreds of Kavadi’s last time, every day decorated with flowers and peacock feathers. There would also be the rare Flying Kavadi where devotees will hang nearly 10 meters above ground on steel structures and then pulled to the temples. The whole route will be lined with Tannir Panthals or refreshment booths build by shops or groups to provide free refreshment for the people. It’s a different scene nowadays because more devotees are content in taking Palkudams because it’s much easier and cheaper than carrying Kavadi’s or pulling chariots. Kavadis itself can be rented or bought and most of the times you will see the same ones along the festival. There was even a year when I saw images of kavadi’s by Liverpool supporters in Batu Caves and this year there was a Liverpool Thannir Panthal in Penang. Times are changing indeed.

For the past two years my uncle has been pulling chariots to fulfill his wishes to the Lord. It certainly had been a long time since I actually witnessed anyone in my immediate family take kavadi or pull a chariot since no one lives in SP anymore. Chariots are much bigger than Kavadi’s and brightly decorated with lights and flowers. It’s also a nice feeling to see the whole family get together once a year to make that journey. Bob and Nagin joined in this year to pull the chariot and it was a fun thing trying to control the crowd, protect the chariot troupe and also trying hard to impress the girls. It’s not much of a secret that since reaching teenage years, Thaipusam has turned into a venue to impress the girls, finding soul mates, etc. But that’s for another story another day. Chariots are the current favorite for devotees since you can get the whole family involved and in some instances whole gangs. While all chariots looks nearly alike, there are creative people out there who build amazing structures that dwarfs all others, from giant statues to unique one of a kind creations of football team emblems. There are also hundreds of Chinese devotes who join in the celebration and fulfilling their vows. Kavadi’s bearers and devotes pulling chariots wear sharp hooks, normally the Murugan Vel or Tridents on their face, through their mouth and bodies, each symbolizing something their prayed for before the festival. The current temple management doesn’t allow for dangerous body mutilations that were popular years before. (But there is a festival in Thailand where you can see amazing feats of body mutilation often show in Ripley’s.)

The final day of Thaipusam is extra special because the Murugan Chariot will be in procession around the town. It used to be brought out on the second day but made way to the other chariots. Other temples such as Batu Caves and Penang have different timings for their chariots. The traditional Murugan Chariot is pulled by two bull cows and goes on a 10 hour journey around town accompanied yet again by musical troupes, temple helpers (thondars) and devotes. It will stop at shops and Thannir Panthals to let people perform archanai offerings to the Lord. (Archanai for the chariots are normally silver plates with coconuts, fruit, silk and other things.) Thaipusam chariots also means that hundreds of thousands of coconuts will be smashed along the route in an age old tradition that symbolizes the casting away of ego, the coconut symbolizing the head.

For the Indians all around the world who prays to lord Muruga as their protector and also guide, Thaipusam is a symbol of cultural genius of humans, a well planned routine that culminates in a fresh soul being born after fulfilling their vows. For the true devotee, Thaipusam means another year of blessing and the ultimate appreciation to God so that everyone will live in peace and happiness. In general Thaipusam means a time when the whole family gathers with friends to ensure that a great tradition doesn’t die off. And for this not so sleepy town, Sungai Petani, the Thaipusam celebration means showing everyone that we respect our culture deeply and passionately and will never let go of this special privilege that makes us Indians. In years to come hopefully there will be more Indians recognizing the importance of this once a year festivals because of the ever changing socio-political landscape trying to undermine our culture, and for those years also the native SP devotes will come back from wherever they are to take part and celebrate culture.

I hope everyone learned something from this post and also do spend time visiting the links below of Malaysians and others who witnessed the unique celebration.
[+] Sungai Petani-[Thaipusam 2006],[Thaipusam Chariot],[Videos-Search in Google Video (just type 'Thaipusam SP 2006' or 'Thaipusam' or 'Chariot' etc, reply in comment if you're unable to locate it)]

[+] Visi-[BatuCaves],[Kavadi]
[+] TvSmith-[Chariot]
[+] Penang Thaipusam-[Photos1] ,[TourismPenang]
[+] Thaipusam Movies -[Movies]
[+] [Singapore]
[+] [Around the world] - A BBC article.
[+] Some excellent Thaipusam Photos-[YoongKhean],[SingaporeThaipusam-Pfong],[Penang06] ,[Liz-Singapore]


Nirek said...

Thats great commentary on Thaipusam! Its great celeberation indeed. I dont remember seen any big thaipusam from my childhood! :(

Jeevan said...

I have a good read of thaipuam and learn many informations about thaipusam,. i think in Malayasia this festival is celebrated very grand than in Tamil nadu. u have a nice Memories, i not even stayyed in any temples, but u have good experiance staing in Murugan Temple.

Hear only if any festiival or function they will put Cinema songs, now they have stared in Malasyia also. hope that u have good times with u r family on thaipusa this year, You Uncle should be lucky to pull Chariot.

Nahuatl said...

Nice videos! :)

Got some more? :D

visithra said...

Bc loud speaker was playing murugan songs -and if u went deeper into the fair far away from the temple - the stalls selling new releases would play their songs not disturbing the devotees

the temple has done a lot of changes over here - actually didnt see any long pierced vels just kavadis and the hooks - i might have missed those im not sure

loved the post - really good - n thanks for linking

still_figuring_out said...

awesome post, GP. i was unable to witness many kavadis this year. the general rumor was that most kavadi bearers went to BC this year. i guess the new statue played a big role in diverting the crowd.

karthik m said...

great post... as usual!(one quesn how much time you take to post a post...) with detailed descriptions and prompt linkings... mmmm... you are doing quite a job!(as u may bored of rhetoric praisings i wanna be a strong criticizer.. in future,,, what u say Gp:)

Ghost Particle said...

[satu] Thanx bro...its the tradition and culture that makes us humans.

[Jeevan] I love thaipusams...the people and all.
Yeh...cinema songs is a rage in every big festival around here.

[Nayan] More videos in google video...just google Thaipusam SP...u will find them posted by Ghost Particle...there is a full lenght video i made comming soon maybe next week.

Ghost Particle said...

{Visi] Always a pleasure...actually i heard even in penang they have centralized sound systems...maybe soon theyll force it in SP too. But in the temple compound there will always be devotional songs.

{still] True...I tink everyone went to planning to go when there is less people maybe on a weekday someday. Kavadi's are getting lesser n lesser everyyear.

[Karthik] Thanx bro...I write them at home coz i dont have regular net and post them maybe once or twice a week. U can comment critically if you want...i would lvoe it.


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