19 February 2008


A new year means new festivals (at least for me) in Singapore. The first of note is Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated mainly by the Tamil community on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai (January or February). The festival celebrates two events - it commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan, the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, and it marks the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a lance (called a vel) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.

The festival is a time for the show of devotion, usually to avert disaster or bring good fortune to family. The devotee makes a pilgrimage with a kavadi, a type of burden, which varies from the simple - a wooden stick with buckets at the ends slung across the shoulders - to the elaborate - heavily decorated metal and wooden frames that are attached to the body.

In Singapore, the devotees walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (Chettiar Hindu Temple) in River Valley, near Clarke Quay and Fort Canning. This walk, about five kilometres long, is completed while carrying the burden of the kavadi. Many carry the vel kavadi, a portable altar up to two metres tall, decorated with peacock feathers and attached to the devotee through 108 vels pierced into the skin on the chest and back. Piercing of the tongue or cheeks is also common. The devotees prepare for this by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting, celibacy, a strict diet of pure (known as Satvik) food, and continuous thoughts of God. It is claimed that devotees are able to enter a trance, feel no pain, shed no blood from their wounds and have no scars left behind.

I include a few pictures of the vel kavadi to give you an idea of what the devotees endure. It really is a fascinating ritual, and one, interestingly enough, that is performed only among the diaspora, as it is outlawed in India.