Sunday, February 08, 2009
Thaipusam in Singapore
Part 2 of 2: Stories and Legends of Thaipusam
By: Arun and Jayanthi**
Thaipusam is a festival celebrated by Tamil Hindus around the world, but is best known in Malaysia. Thaipusam is celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai (January-February) when the moon passes through the star known as ‘Poosam.’ This festival would fall after Pongal and Tamil New Year as both of these festivals fall on the first day of Thai mausam (month), which generally falls on the western calendar date of January 14.
On this day, devotees break a ten day fast and carry a kavadi- which in Tamil means “a flattened pole with loads at the ends.” Some kavadies are made from wood, while others are made from metal. Some are simply decorated and easy to carry, while others are very ornate, heavy and a challenge to carry. Different decorations on kavadies symbolize different prayers to Lord Murugam (source), but most people pray to cure a sickness in the family, get a good job, pass exams or some other major life transition that poses difficulty. Though these kavadies are a main part of showing devotion to the lord, the real spectacle to this festival for outsiders is the self-mutilation some afflict on themselves in the name of the lord. Men, and very few women, may decide to pierce their body parts. Some piercings include: rods through the cheek, nipple piercings, and hooks to the back where things are carried. Some devotees also paint their face and body and can look quite out-of-the-ordinary. Though these sites may bring more attention to this festival, piercings and even carrying kavadies is not necessary to be able to observe this festival.
There are a few legends associated with this festival that are very intriguing.
Kavadi Born from Two Mountains
**this part submitted by Arun
Sage Agasthiar during one of his trips away from his abode at 'Pothigai' created two hills, Sivagiri and Sakthigiri. He then prayed to Lord Shiva and his consort Sakthi to appear on these hills so that he could offer his daily 'pooja'. In response to his prayer Lord Shiva along with his consort appeared one on each hill. At the end of his worship Agasthiar wanted to take these two hills to his place in Pothigai. He therefore asked his disciple Idumban to transport these two hills. Idumban in response to his preceptor's request tied these two hills in a 'thandu' (pole) and carried them like a 'kavadi' and followed Agasthiar on his journey. Arriving in the area now known as Palani Idumban felt tired and put the 'kavadi' down and rested for a while. While Idumban was resting another event was unfolding in 'Kailash' - the abode of Lord Shiva.
Naradha, the celestial wanderer and 'mischief-maker', acquired a rare and precious mango fruit and offered it to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathy. Lord Shiva in turn wanted his children to enjoy this rare fruit. So he summoned his two children Subramanya and Ganesha but he could not decide as to who should get this fruit. So he set a contest between them. He told them, "Whoever goes round the Universe and returns to me first will get this fruit". Lord Subramanya without wasting time immediately got on his mount, the peacock, and flew away at a lightning speed, while Lord Ganesha pondered over this problem for a while. He then slowly got up from his perch and went round his parents and requested the fruit for himself, saying, "You are the Universe and all the Universe is in you. By going round you I have gone round the Universe. Therefore the fruit is mine." Parvathy and Parameswaran (another name for Lord Shiva) delighted by these words gave him the fruit. Lord Subramanya on his return found that he had been outwitted by his brother and became angry. He threw down all his ornaments and renouncing all his worldly possessions but with just a loin cloth (Kaupeenam) and a staff (Thandu) went in search of a retreat for himself. On his search he came across the hills that Idumban had laid down and settled on one of them.
Idumban after his rest tried to lift his 'kavadi' so that he could continue on his journey but found that he could not lift them. He found out that there was an intruder in one of his hills and tried to attack him without realizing who the intruder was. Lord Murugan (Lord Subramanya) immediately killed Idumban but he was later restored to life at the pleadings of Idumban's wife and of Agasthiar. Idumban then prayed to Lord Murugan that he be allowed to stand at the entrance to Lord Murugan's shrines as 'Dwarapalaka' and any devotee carrying a 'kavadi' to these shrines in fulfillment of a vow should be granted his wish. Lord Shiva finding that his son had become a recluse tried to pacify His anger by appealing to him that he (Murugan) himself was the fruit of all the wisdom and righteousness of this world and that he did not need another fruit. The pronouncement that Lord Murugan himself was a fruit (Pazham=Fruit; Nee = yourself) gave the name to this place as 'Palani'. The deity on the hill shrine thus appears in the form of an ascetic and stands with just a pole in his right hand and is called 'Thandaayuthapaani' (Thandu = Pole; Aayutham = weapon; Paani = Appearance. There is another hill nearby called 'Idumban malai', the other hill that was carried by Idumban.
Other Legends Related to Thaipusam
It is said on this day, many years ago, Lord Murugan (pictured, right) reestablished peace to the earth by ridding the earth of an asura (evil being), Soorabathman. It is said that for Thaipusam, Lord Murugan was granted the most powerful weapon called the Vel to find and destroy Soorabathman. In this legend, Lord Murugan was able to find and destroy this asura without much effort on the first try with this powerful Vel (source). I find this story intriguing as Murugan also fights Soorabathman for a Diwali street re-enactment in Kanchipuram. However, in that re-enactment, Soorabathaman is not so easily destroyed. Lord Murugan has to destroy him one head at a time, as with each ‘killing’ Soorabathman grows a new head, and a new life.
The other legend attached to this festival is that this is none other than the birthday of Lord Murugan.
As Thaipusam passed this year, I reflected on it. When I lived in Chennai a friend of mine and I were out in the middle of the city on Thaipusam. A man was standing on a street corner, begging. But he was not like any beggar. He was wearing only a loin cloth, carrying a ‘vel’-like implment, his body and face were painted amazing colors and his cheeks and nipples were pierced. We both became scared. My friend, who was from the village (a pakka Tamilian), pulled me away and she looked absolutely frightened. I was somewhat aware of what this was. She told me that she had never seen anything like this before, and in fact in the village she lived in no one celebrated this festival. She told me that people who celebrate in this way are feared by most people she knows and they don’t understand this kind of devotion. It was an amazing experience for me. I remembered this incident as I reflected on Thaipusam and what it’s real meaning is. For most, reflecting on the legends above may be one way to make sense of why to celebrate this festival. However, on another level, I feel that all of us, regardless of religion celebrate this festival in a secular way every day we are on earth.
Why do people celebrate and carry Kavady? I think it because they have some worry or concern they want rectified. I wondered if the size or the grandeur of the kavady equated in the physical world the magnitude of their problems. Then I also became curious of what kinds of burdens they carry everyday, what kind of burdens we as humans carry everyday and specifically what kind of burdens I carry every day. How much do I allow my own burdens to become visible to others and overcome my life and lives of those of others around me? Because life can offer us so many kind of stresses, many of us feel we ‘carry the weight of the world on our shoulders,’ we get stressed out and get shoulder, neck and back pain. However, kavadi carriers literally carry the weight of their world on their shoulders. It is in this thought that I became more curious about the relationship between the grandeur of a kavadi to the devotee’s stress and problems. Coming to the topic of piercing the body- it is true not all of us go to this extreme for devotion or for vanity. The furthest many may go is ear or nose piercing. Figuratively, however, how many of us pierce and wound ourselves with our worries, concerns and problems to the point of emotional or physical pain? Many of us can relate to this on some level. Looking at this from a positive angle, however, one who doesn’t want to carry kavadi or pierce or paint their body to show devotion to the Lord and ease their concerns, can try to meditate on all the ways they have overcome hardship in the past year and keep repeating those things in addition to asking for guidance out of the tough problems that one faces at any point of the year.
Thank you for reading.
**Arun has submitted the legend material, I filled in most of the rest. Arun has submitted the photos, it is used with Arun's permission.
Want to know when Thaipusam is in 2010, 2011, 2013? Follow the interfaith social calendar at Alaivani.
This is part 2 of 2. Follow for part 1: Exploring Reasons and Meanings behind the rituals of Thaipusam.
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to complementary Alaivani RSS feed and my Yahoo group (files, photos, newsletters and more not on the site). Thank you for reading.
Thank you for reading and visiting Alaivani.com.
Copyright ©2009 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar
3 comments so far...
By veggiebelly on
Monday, March 16, 2009
Re: Thaipusam in Singapore
My grandmother actually travels to malaysia for thai pusam, Ive heard its an incredible eperience.
By Guhan on
Monday, March 16, 2009
Re: Thaipusam in Singapore
First of all let me compliment you on your wonderful blog/site. It's both informative and very interesting. I must say you put me to shame. Haha!
As far as I know Diwali (or deepavali) is associated with the Ramayana. In this epic, Rama (an avatar of Vishnu) had to kill the evil Asura king Ravana by cutting off his 10 heads. Each time he cuts of one head, a new head grew back. Some interpretation/version of the epic say he grew back 10 more head (Honestly I think the law of physics just does not allow that to be possible and he'd just topple over). With regards to the Diwali street re-enactment in Kanchipuram that you watched, this could be the case and not the story of Murugan. Very often asking an indian/hindu about hinduism or a ritual or a mythology related to the religion begets an erronous clarification/reply. There's nothing wrong with being told the wrong story except for the fact that it is still wrong. I say this because the ultimate in this is the faith and belief in the core of the dharma of the hindu principles and not the stories and mythological tales. These tales are to teach the dharma and I strongly believe that it has worked for the man on the street for more than 2000 years (lets not touch the BC period for now). The complex teachings of the vedas are still being instilled in all hindu followers/believers/etc till now through these wonderful stories. Sometimes the proper stories are mixed and matched like here Murugan doing what Rama had done, but the jist of the story is still the same ie triumph of good over evil.
So yeah, my 2cents worth of banter.
Anyway, keep up the impressive work and God bless.
P.S. I'm on Facebook too under the name of Guhan Subramaniam. I'm in Singapore.
By admin on
Monday, March 16, 2009
Re: Thaipusam in Singapore
Thank you for stopping by veggie belly and Guhan. Sorry for belated approvals of comments!!!
To Guhan: I greatly appreciate the time and detail you have gone into on your post. You are right- getting wrong information is still wrong. However, my doubt about this is especially with the Hindu culture the way it is, so many facets and side bars, who knows what story is actually 'true'. I have found in asking so many people things over the years, what is true for one, is not true for another and yet again another has a slightly different version for the same festival or it's used for another!!! It's quite fascinating. Also, the other thought comes to mind with Ravana...yes, physics is a thought to ponder on Ravana! It's impossible no doubt! But, the doubt comes in the symbology of Ravana. As with the many varieties of stories that exist, so abounds the symbology from the mythology behind the stories! Once I was told gods have a lot of hands, for instance, because they need to multitask! Wow if that is true, then I need a few more hands! So, with heads, can it symbol the different personalities, mind sets or moods of a person and to discern which mind set is the required one or true one for our own being? Just a thought!! Thanks again for stopping by. My facebook account is accessible through clicking on my photo/facebook icon on the top left of this page!! Enjoy!!