Thaipusam is celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of “Thai”. The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam. This particular star is at its highest point during the festival.
Anchored by a large, colourful annual procession, Thaipusam sees Hindu devotees in Singapore seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks.
The festival is celebrated in honour of Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan), who represents virtue, youth and power, and is the destroyer of evil.
The festival generally lasts for 2 days. On the eve, the chariot procession (with the Lord Murugan statue) begins from Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Siak Road.
The Thaipusam ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning. The first batch of devotees carry milk pots and wooden kavadis. Some pierce their tongues with skewers and carry a wooden kavadi decorated with flowers and peacock feathers balanced on their shoulders. Other devotees carry spiked kavadis that require elaborate preparation.
'Kavadi' literally means ‘sacrifice at every step’ in Tamil, and indeed, this proves to be the case if you take a closer look. A semi-circular steel or wooden frame, a 'kavadi' is meant to be hoisted by a devotee for the length of the procession. It has bars for support on the shoulders, is decorated with flowers and peacock feathers, and some have spikes that pierce into the body. It can top out at 40 kilogrammes and reach a height of four metres.
In Singapore, this religious festival attracts thousands of Hindu devotees who fulfil their vows through a 4km walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple (SSPT) to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (STT), along with relatives and friends who chant hymns and prayers to support and encourage them.
Indeed, for devotees, Thaipusam is often the climax of an entire month spent in spiritual preparation with a strict vegetarian diet.
It is believed that only when the mind is free of material worth and the body free from physical pleasures can a devotee undertake the sacred task without feeling any pain.
Of course, not all who join the Thaipusam procession commit to such extremes – many 'kavadi' have no spikes and women often simply carry a pot of milk, an offering which symbolises abundance and fertility to the Hindus.
You can witness the spectacle anywhere between Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road and Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road, as some lanes are closed to traffic for the occasion.
More information on the kavadi, its origins and some of the various forms it takes from the Thaipusam.sg site:
There are many types of offerings, which the devotee makes to his beloved deity Sri Murugan. A special offering is the carrying of kavadi and there is a Puranic legend behind this practice.
There was once a great saint called Agasthya who rested at Mount Pothikai. Agasthya dispatched one of his students, Idumban, to Mount Kailai Range instructing him to bring back two hills called Sivagiri and Shakthigiri belonging to Lord Murugan.
As instructed, Idumban having arrived at Mount Kailai, picked up both the hills, tied them and swung them across his shoulders.
Lord Murugan had other plans. He wanted the two hills to be placed at Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and at the same time test the devotion and tenacity of purpose of Idumban.
Idumban who was on his way back with the hills suddenly found himself lost. Lord Murugan appeared as a king, riding a horse led Idumban to Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and requested Idumban to rest there so that he could continue his journey later.
Having rested, Idumban tried to carry the two hills but strangely found that he could not do so. A perplexed Idumban looked up and saw a child in loincloth standing atop one of the hills. Idumban requested the child to get down, however, the child refused claiming that the hills belonged to him. An angered Idumban attempted to attack the child but found himself falling like an uprooted tree. A scuffle ensued and Idumban was defeated. Only then did Idumban realize that the child was none other than Muruga or Subrahmanya Himself – the ruling deity of the region. Idumban craved the pardon of the divine child and also sought the boon that anyone who comes to the hills to worship Sri Muruga with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a load bearing pole, may be granted his heart’s desire. Idumban’s wish was granted. Murugan also said that he would bless those who bring sandal, milk, flowers, etc. in a kavadi to His shrine. Hence, the practice of carrying a kavadi.
At the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, one can see a small sanctum dedicated to Idumban. Devotees who usually fast for Thaipusam break their fast one day later after offering their prayers to Idumban.
The simplest kavadi consists of a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. The kavadi is decorated with peacock feathers and a small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.
There are more elaborate kavadis that devotees carry. The alagu and ratha kavadi are common forms of kavadi carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks. A kavadi bearer not only carries a gift for God but the whole kavadi is seen as a shrine for God Himself.
Devotees who intend to carry kavadis are customarily required to observe strict physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a necessity. This includes taking just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy. According to orthodox doctrine, rigid fasting and abstinence have to be observed over a 48-day period prior to the offering of the kavadi on Thaipusam Day.
Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and gives them great powers of endurance.
Yes, they allow visitors and tourists to photograph Thaipusam specially during procession, but it’s important to restrict yourself and be respectful of this kind religious event. Carrying a metal cage by your skin with pierce on their tongue and walking barefoot is not an easy task, so it’s important that you do not get in the participants’ way, even if you think it’ll result in the perfect shot.