Of all Penang’s culturally varied religious celebrations, none is more colourful than Thaipusam. Every January or February, on the full moon of the 10th month in the Hindu calendar, festival frenzy descends on the island, drawing hundreds of thousands of devotees and spectators onto the streets.
Of course, there is a serious side to Thaipusam, which is dedicated as a day of thanksgiving to the Lord Subramaniam. Pilgrims turn out in their thousands to join the procession between the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on central Georgetown’s Street of Harmony to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on Waterfall Road, not far from the Botanic Gardens. For Hindus, this is a time of 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.
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 Subramaniam. They are followed by pilgrims, dressed in red and gold and carrying offerings of milk in silver and brass pots balanced on their heads, make their way barefoot through the streets.
In Georgetown, people smash coconuts in the path of the chariots as both an offering to Subramaniam 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 Jalan Anson and Jalan Macalister before ending up on Jalan Utama, which is 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 relatively new Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Kovil, which is perched on the hill above and is dedicated to Subramaniam 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 kovil 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 ornamental structures known as kavadi to their bodies, using hooks and spikes. 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 festivities start on the eve of Thaipusam, Thursday January 16, when the main procession makes its way through Georgetown to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple, reaching its destination at around midnight. On Friday January 17, Thaipusam itself, you can catch hundreds of pierced devotees carrying kavadi up to the hillside kovil, and 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 if you are on the roads, don’t plan on getting anywhere particularly fast. The southwestern end of Jalan Bagan Jermal is completely closed, as is most of Jalan Utama, throughout the entire two-day period, and the procession route will be out of bounds on the afternoon of Thursday.
Traffic heading towards the island on the bridge will also be very heavy and there are normally traffic jams and delays on many of the main roads due to the influx of cars and people. On the plus side, the Penang ferry will operate around the clock from January 16 to 18, and there will be 10 special shuttle buses operating between the main jetty terminal and the top of Jalan Burma, from where you can walk to the heart of the action.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 28th August, 2014.