One of the most photographed and a dramatic religious festival in Malaysia is the colorful Hindu Thaipusam festival. Held during January or February, this is the perfect time to holiday in Malaysia and soak up the atmosphere of this exciting religious celebration.
Every year Thaipusam draws hundreds of thousands of Hindu Indians in Malaysia to watch processions of devotees who have made a vow during the past year. Tourists from all over the world who know when to visit Malaysia also turn up in their thousands.
Devotees redeem their vow by carrying ornamental structures (kavadi) attached to their bodies by hooks and steel spikes that penetrate their flesh. A unique spectacle for those who would like to know what to do in Malaysia.
The name ‘Thaipusam’ originates from ‘Thai’ which is the Hindu month which falls between January 15 and February 15 and ‘Pusam’ which refer to a star which is at its brightest during the period of this festival.
Celebrated in all parts of the world where there is a concentration of South Indians, Thaipusam festivities are best witnessed in Malaysia where large celebrations are held at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur and in Penang.
Hindus will normally take a vow to offer a kavadi idol to Lord Muruga with the intent of averting a crisis or solving an issue in their lives such as curing a family member’s illness or wishing for success in business. Devotees can also include those who wish to repent for misdeeds or who have had their wishes granted in the past.
On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while carrying their kavadi.
The simplest kavadi is normally a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders. However some devotees pierce their tongue or cheeks or have hooks stuck into their back which are either pulled by someone walking behind or are hung from a decorated cart or tractor.
Very few women devotees pierce their bodies and instead carry pots of milk or coconuts slung over their shoulders.
In Kuala Lumpur, the three-day long Thaipusam festival culminates in a procession that goes from the heart of the city to the temple at Batu Caves.
The night before the celebration, the image of Lord Muruga is decorated with jewels such as rubies and diamonds. Joined with images of his consorts Valli and Deivayani, which represent the spiritual and worldly energies (commonly known as Shakti); the images are placed on a bed of flowers.
This is carried on a five-tone chariot which pulled by two bulls a leads the procession of hundreds of devotees. Beginning at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple at Jalan Tun H.S Lee in Chinatown, the procession works its way through major streets for 15 kilometers until it reaches the caves. This journey can take up to eight hours and every year attracts over one million visitors.
Once it reaches the final destination, a prayer ceremony is held at the base of the caves and then devotees climb the 272 steps to present their offerings.
If you travel to Penang during Thaipusam, you won’t want to miss the celebrations which are held at Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) in George Town. The celebration also commences with a similar chariot procession which leaves at 6am on the eve of Thaipusam called ‘chetty pusam’ and departs Kovil Veedu (House Temple) on Penang Street.
The journey to reach the Hilltop Temple takes ten hours and culminates in devotees climbing a flight of 513 steps. It is reported that more than 500,000 Hindu Indians in Malaysia visit Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) every year.
As part of the ceremony devotees also offer Lord Subramaniam orange and yellow flowers and fruit. They also generally dress in orange and yellow clothing as part of the ceremony.
Thaipusam is a great time to travel to Penang and holiday in Malaysia as it offers a unique insight into the important Hindu faith.
During religious festivals in Malaysia, it is important to adopt responsible attitudes to travel in line with the principles of eco-tourism.
This includes fostering respect for local cultures during celebrations and at all other times when exploring the country. Taking only photos and leaving just footprints will help retain the beauty of this exotic destination so that many more people can enjoy it in the same capacity in the future.