An Exotic Mix of Preparation, Sacrifice and Devotion
Malaysia is a country of over 30 million people. In peninsula Malaysia, there are three main races: Malays ( over 60% ), Chinese ( about 25 % ) and Indians ( about 8 % ).
In the East Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, the races comprise Kadazandusuns with their own paramount leader and the Chinese, Bajau, Malay, Bugis and Murut. In Sarawak, the other East Malaysian state, the major races are Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Chinese, Malay, Tagal, Orang Ulu, and Penan.
Melting Pot of Races
As befitting a melting pot of many races, cultures and traditions, Malaysians celebrate a wide range of pretty diverse festivals. These range from the Gawai Festival in Sarawak, the Kaamatan Festival of Sabah, Hari Raya and Hari Raya Haji, Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghosts Festival, Moon Cake Festival, Wesak Day, Deepavali, Ponggal, Thaipusam and Christmas to name a few.
Most of these are actually harvest festivals. Moon Cake Festival, for instance, is the 2nd most important festival for the Chinese. During the Hungry Ghosts Festival, the belief is that dead souls ( hungry ghosts ) return to briefly visit living relatives!
The above list is not all inclusive but it does give one an idea of the range of festivals that are celebrated in cosmopolitan Malaysia. One of these festivals is the subject of this blog posting. It is a truly splendid display of religious piety in an otherwise materialistic, hedonistic and imperfect world.
Thaipusam Leaves One Spellbound
Thaipusam is a grand and enthralling Hindu festival in the Tamil diaspora. It is celebrated with much preparation, sacrifice and devotion not just in Malaysia but also in Mauritius, Singapore, Seychelles, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.
Malaysia’s celebration is, however, among the largest in the world drawing over a million and a half devotees to the imposing Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. There are also similar celebrations in other major Malaysian cities like Georgetown in Penang and in Ipoh, Perak.
Thaipusam has, however, become less a strictly Hindu affair and more a distinctly Malaysian one. There are also a number of Malaysian Chinese devotees who participate in this festival, especially in Penang. Many foreigners and tourists alike gather along the route of the slow moving chariot procession from the main temple in Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves to watch this amazing spectacle of deep rooted faith.
The Rituals that are Followed
Kavadi is a ceremonial sacrifice practised by devotees during the worship of Lord Murugan. There are a few types of kavadis from simple ones to more elaborate kavadis.
The simple kavadi is basically a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. A small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.
The more elaborate alagu and ratha kavadis are carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks.
Observing Physical and Mental Discipline
Devotees who wish to carry kavadis are required to strictly observe physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a must. This includes consuming just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy over a 48 day period prior to carrying the kavadi on Thaipusam day.
Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and grants them great powers of endurance.
Body Should Not Be Harmed
There is some confusion over whether Thaipusam is banned in India. Some individuals think it is only the practice of piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks that is banned. Hinduism advocates that the body should not be harmed as the body is like a temple where the soul resides.
This extreme Hindu religious ritual lives on as a recognised holiday in some Malaysian states! An individual and a non-Indian who was truly captivated by this festival and Hinduism, in general, is Dr.Carl Vadivella Belle.
Honorary Hindu Chaplin
Dr Belle, a career diplomat, had served in the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur from 1976 to 1979. ( High Commission is the term used to describe an embassy from a Commonwealth country. The ambassador is referred to as a High Commissioner ) Dr Belle has maintained a long-term interest in Malaysian social, political and religious issues.
His doctoral dissertation, ‘ Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival Misunderstood?’ was accepted by Deakin University in 2004. Dr Belle was appointed Inaugural Hindu Chaplin at Flinders University in South Australia in 2005. During Thaipusam 2017, he provided expert advice to a BBC television team.
Tracing the Layers of Meaning
In his second book,’ Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival in the Tamil Diaspora’ Dr Belle closely examines the popular festival from the ‘ inside ‘ and attempts to trace the layers of meaning and the recondite vocabularies of this multifaceted and complex celebration in terms of its continuing relevance to Malaysian Hindus.
Dr Belle concludes that far from being a cultural aberration, Thaipusam is a product of time, place and the peculiar circumstances of Hindus in Malaysia.
He believes that constructed from deep-rooted elements of South Indian culture, Thaipusam can be fully comprehended by locating it within Tamil history, philosophies and belief structures, in particular, those associated with Lord Murugan.
Dr Belle gave a talk recently on this interesting subject matter in Penang. Those who are keen on obtaining a copy of the book can write to Areca Books at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. Alternatively, you can purchase a copy from the heritage bookseller at its book shop at 15 Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, George Town, Penang 10200, Malaysia.