Thaipusam or Thaipoosam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February). It is mainly observed in countries where there is a significant presence of Tamil communities such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Canada, and other places where ethnic Hindu Tamils reside.
It is a national holiday in many countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Fiji. In Singapore, it was a national holiday once but it was removed from Singapore holidays.
The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam. This particular star is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel "spear" so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. It is commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan's birthday.
The Kavadi Attam ("Burden Dance", also written as cavadee) is the ceremonial sacrifice and offering performed by devotees during the worship of Murugan. It is often performed during the festival of Thaipusam and emphasizes debt bondage. The Kavadi itself is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from Murugan.
Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for 48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Murugan. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and consumes only certain types of foods known as Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God. On the day of the festival, devotees often shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route, while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens).
At its simplest, this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue, or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. The simplest kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders to the temple. In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks, or large fish-type hooks piercing their body with lemons attached". Some even walk the set route, which may be several miles on top of shoes of nails.
The Thaipusam ceremony has been banned in many countries with major Hindu populations, but still exists in a few places. I managed to come across this controversial ceremony in Singapore, just across the bridge from southern Malaysia.
Photographed in 1987
Photographed in 1987.