THAIPUSAM 2018 ON PENANG
Thaipusam is a three day Hindu festival. It is celebrated during the full moon of the 10th month in the Hindu calendar. This is normally during the last week of January or the beginning of February. Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam, which is at its highest point during the festival. It commemorates the occasion when Parvati (the Hindu goddess of fertility, love, devotion, divine strength and power) gave Murugan (the universal granter of wishes) a spear - the vel - so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. So at Thaipusam devotees pray to Murugan to receive his grace and favours and to make penance.
A THREE DAY FESTIVAL
On the first day, a pilgrimage procession takes place to bring the statue of Lord Murugan on a silver chariot led by more than 60 kavadis (burdens) from the Kovil Veedu on Lebuh Penang, Little India, to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani temple atop the hill of Jalan Kebun Bunga. The chariot is pulled by two decorated bulls and coconut are smashed in front of it to cleanse the road. There is now also a golden chariot which carries Lord Murugan’s spear.
On the second day devotees go through a physical endurance of being skewered and pierced on the back and front of their bodies as an act of penance. Thunderous loud music, singing, dancing and the beating of drums of devotional songs are the norm during this festival. Upon reaching the temple, devotees will fulfil their vows, offer thanksgiving prayers and do penance as required.
On the third day the chariots are pulled back to the temples.
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF A LITTLE PROBLEM LAST YEAR…..
For the previous 124 years there had only been one Thaipusam chariot. A second chariot, the golden chariot backed by the Penang Hindu Endowment Board, was introduced last year to carry the spear This meant there were going to be two chariots out on the roads.
Unfortunately there was a slight disagreement over starting times and the rain didn’t help matters.
The chariots were supposed to leave at staggered times early in the morning and were expected to arrive late in the evening on the same day, but some time apart. For the first time on Penang devotees had the experience of watching two chariots during Thaipusam – but to many it was rather frustrating. It appears that the golden chariot pulled by devotees went first, and then got stuck on the coconuts. The silver chariot pulled by bulls was following some distance behind, but caught up with the golden chariot which is where the problems started. The golden chariot then moved slowly, with stops, holding everything up so what was supposed to have been a 13- to 14-hour procession over a 6.5km route took 22 hours. They reached their destinations at 3am and 3.30 am.
So far this year there appears to have been no disagreement and both chariots have published their starting times.
THE ROUTE OF THE PROCESSION ON DAY ONE - 30th JANUARY
The golden chariot pulled by devotees is due to leave from the Arulmigu Maha Mariamman Temple in Queen Street at 5am. It will go to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) via Queen Street, Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Victoria, Jalan Prangin, Jalan Magazine, Jalan Dato Keramat, Jalan Utama and Jalan Kebun Bunga.
The silver chariot pulled by bulls will start from the Kovil Veedu at Penang Street at 6.30am and will go to the Nattukkottai Chettiars temple at Waterfall Road. It will follow the same route.
WHERE TO GO TO WATCH THE PROCESSION?
I would not suggest going down to Little India or the surrounding roads to see it as it gets very congested there and it is not easy to take photos.
A good place to see it all is by Times Square on Jalan Dato Keramat where the silver chariot stops beside an Indian temple to rest the bulls. You will get some good photos there. Whilst the bulls are resting devotees pass trays laden with fruit, flowers and incense up to the priests on the chariot to be blessed. The chariot cannot move on until everyone has had his or her tray blessed. It is impossible to say exactly when a chariot will arrive, especially as there are now two of them, but in 2016 the silver chariot arrived around 3pm. You will know when a chariot is approaching because the police close the road and the flow of traffic stops. The road is wide near Times Square and there are all sorts of stalls set up with dancers and entertainers to keep you amused while you wait. Food is plentiful but public toilets en route are not. I don’t drink at all when I go out to Thaipusam.
Along the sides of every road you’ll see piles of coconuts which devotees have paid to have delivered. There will be labels on them for ownership purposes. As the chariot approaches the coconuts will be hurled onto the road. Some smash, some stay whole. Be warned it can be messy and dangerous. If you’ve been standing near a pile, and been chatting to the “owners”, they may invite you to help out. Following closely behind the chariot are the MPPP (local council) workers and a few bulldozers. They clear up the mess.
BODY PIERCING AND WHERE TO SEE IT
On the second day, devotees will be skewered and pierced on the back and front of their bodies as an act of penance. Some may have arrows through their cheeks whilst others will have two rows of hooks down their backs. Ropes will be attached to the hooks and will be gathered up and used to pull a friend, or a small wagon, behind them. Others will carry milk pots hung from their bodies.
Go to Lorong Kulit off the top end of Jalan Dato Keramat during the morning to see the piercings. 9am-11am is a good time. It is not as bad as it sounds and you won’t see blood. Small children will be there collecting their pots of milk (Paal Kudam) or being fitted with miniature kavadi to carry. You’ll get some great photos. Body piercing stops for a while at lunch time but continues in the afternoon, but the most spectacular (if you have a strong stomach) takes place in the morning. If you’re not sure you want to witness it then just follow the crowds along Jalan Utama. You will hear the cries of “vel” - spear - as people walk the route.
Some will wear elaborate kavadi consisting of two semicircular pieces of wood or steel attached to a cross structure that can be balanced on their shoulders and usually attached to their bodies with hooks. They are often decorated with flowers and peacock feathers and some can weigh up to 30 kg. The most spectacular ones are up to two meters tall and attached to the devotee through 108 hooks pierced into the skin on the chest and back. The wearer might also have their cheeks pierced. Seeing a towering line of kavadis coming towards you is an awesome sight.
All the way on both sides of the roads you’ll see Thaneer Panthals, beautifully decorated makeshift stalls and mini shrines. Bottled water, rice, fruit and vegetarian food will be given to devotees from the food stalls. There will be a lot of music and dancing along the way and it is quite noisy. Look out for all the kolams, painted symbols, on the roads. Women go out wearing their good saris so it is lovely and colourful. When people get to the lower temple they climb up to the top temple where all the milk that has been carried up is emptied into large containers. At one time it used to flow down the hill as a stream but not any more.
On the way down from the temple both men and women will have their heads shaved and then have a yellow sulphurous paste applied.
Please be warned that if you are thinking of climbing up to the temple there are 512 steps. Some say 513 - I’ve never counted.
On the second day this year the temple will be closed for prayers from 6.30pm to 11.30 pm due to the Lunar Eclipse.
DAY THREE - THE RETURN JOURNEY - 1st FEBRUARY
The return journey for the golden chariot will be at 5pm, and for the silver chariot at 6.00pm. They will get back to their respective temples early in the morning on the 2nd February. The route will be Lorong Air Terjun, Jalan Gottlieb, Jalan Air Rajah, Jalan Macalister, Jalan Anson, Jalan Burma, Jalan Transfer, Jalan Sri Bahari, Jalan Penang, Campbell Street, Pitt Street, China Street, Beach Street, Market Street and Queen Street.
CAN ANYONE GO?
Of course. You will see the Indian community decked out in colourful clothing. Some of the saris are quite spectacular. You can happily walk along with everyone but I would suggest you cover yourself up a bit to show some cultural sensitivity. It is after all their festival. Traditional colours for people to wear are oranges and yellows.
WHAT ABOUT TRANSPORT?
If you were to do the complete walk from Little India up to the temples it is about 4 miles. The walk from Lorong Kulit is shorter and on the flat so not too strenuous.
If you walk to the waterfall temples you need to know how to get back to where you are staying. The roads will be closed so walk back to Waterfall Corner and turn left down Jalan Gottlieb. You should be able to get a Grab or Uber from there or just continue to Burma Road and pick up a bus.
Rapid Penang usually put on some transport, eg from Weld Quay to Jalan Kelawai, but at the time of writing this they haven’t published any details.
During the three days of Thaipusam some roads will be closed at varying times and you may find your normal bus route changes. George Town is good at creating traffic jams so allow extra time if you’re trying to get somewhere.