Colourful Hindu festival with ritual bodypiercing
Of all Penang’s cultural and religious celebrations, none is more colourful than Thaipusam, observed by the Tamil Hindu diaspora.
Every January or February, determined by the position of the sun, the moon and the star known as “pusam” in the tenth month (“Thai”) of the Tamil Hindu calendar, festival frenzy descends on the island drawing hundreds of thousands of devotees and spectators onto the streets.
Thaipusam is a celebration of good triumphing evil, dedicated as a day of thanksgiving to Lord Murugan (also known as Subrahmanya), the ultimate victor of the celestial battle. For Penang’s Hindus, preparation involves purification, abstinence and dedication, and as well as eating only vegetarian food, devotees may also refrain from sex, swearing and drinking as a mark of respect. Festivities begin on the morning of the eve of Thaipusam when pilgrims turn out in their thousands to join the procession between the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on Georgetown’s Street of Harmony to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple, not far from the Botanic Gardens, often arriving after midnight.
The procession is gloriously colourful and becomes progressively more boisterous. Traffic in the north-eastern corner of the island quite literally comes to a standstill to make way for floats bearing the statues of Hindu gods, including an ornate silver chariot reserved for Murugan. They are followed by barefoot pilgrims, dressed in red and gold and carrying “kavadi” or “burdens” of milk in silver and brass pots balanced on their heads as a sign of devotion.
In Georgetown, people smash coconuts in the path of the chariots as both an offering to Murugan and to symbolise purity, the shattering of one’s ego and self-realisation. As it leaves central Georgetown and reaches the suburbs, the procession passes along streets lined by all manner of colourful stalls from which you can pick up delicious Indian snacks and curries, refreshing lassies or even get your fortune read. This is where the party really gets started and a fantastic carnival atmosphere pervades the air.
If you want to follow in the paths of the pilgrims, you can make your way up to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple and climb the hill to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Kovil (also known as the Waterfall Hill Temple), dedicated to Murugan himself. This is where devotees leave offerings of fruit, flowers, incense and—of course—milk, which is used to bathe the statue of the god and flows freely through the temple at busy times.
Perhaps the most enduring image from Penang’s Thaipusam celebrations, however, are the men who pierce their cheeks or lips with rather terrifying arrows, and who attach huge and heavy ornamental structures to their bodies using hooks and spikes, also known as “kavadi”, but perhaps a more perceivable burden than a jug of milk. This is done as an act of penance, but is apparently completely painless, since the devotee must go into a state of semi-trance. More importantly for the squeamish spectator, the act of piercing is completely blood-free, although you may want to seek the advice of a medical professional before you attempt it yourself.
The following day, the chariot makes the return journey, with the devotees continuing the celebrations. For keen photographers, every single moment offers another picture opportunity. The smells and sounds are so evocative of the great Indian sub-continent that you may temporarily forget that you are in Southeast Asia.
Penang gets very busy over Thaipusam so book your accommodation ahead of time, and if you are on the roads don’t plan on getting anywhere particularly fast. Some roads are often completely closed throughout the entire two-day period, and the procession route will be out of bounds for most of the time too. Special shuttle buses usually operate from the city centre to areas where you can easily walk to the heart of the action. If your timing isn’t right for Penang, you may have a chance to witness this colourful celebration in Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves, or in Singapore’s Little India. To check dates of the next Thaipusam, here is a handy calculator, although note that dates change slightly from country to country, depending on the position of the celestial bodies.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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