Thaipusam is one of Penang’s most dynamic, colourful, and happy annual festivals. Celebrated each year during the full moon of the tenth month of the Hindu calendar – roughly between mid-January and mid-February, the Hindu community in Malaysia pays respect to their highly revered deity, Lord Murugan. The festival of Thaipusam remembers the day when Goddess Pavarti gave her son Lord Murugan an invincible lance with which he destroyed evil demons.
The festival is a pilgrimage procession to bring the statue of Lord Muruga, with a silver and a golden chariot led by more than 60 kavadis (literally “burdens”) from Penang’s Little India to the hilltop temple. This year the procession will set off from Queen Street’s Maha Mariamman temple on Sunday January 20th, at 5am, and will make its way slowly along Buckingham Street, Campbell Street, Penang Road, Burmah Road, Anson Road, Macalister Road and Ayer Raja Road before reaching the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani (Hilltop) Temple on Waterfall Road (Jalan Kebun Bunga) at around 9pm. The chariots will leave the Temple again on January 22nd at 5pm and arrive back in Queen Street at around 7am the following day.
The kavadis are frames that are decorated with coloured paper and flowers and have long chains hanging down with hooks at the end which are pushed into their carriers’ backs. Each kavadi carrier has a group of chanting helpers who support and encourage them throughout the pilgrimage. The helpers protect them from the crowds and form a protective ring around the kavadi so that the wearer can dance freely, reflecting Murugan’s role as Lord of the Dance. Many of the pilgrims are pierced with two skewers, one through the tongue, and one through the cheeks. While these devotions look painful, the pilgrims themselves say they don’t feel any pain because they are in a spiritual and devotional trance. Other pilgrims carry fresh fruit and milk in pots. All will climb over 500 steps to the hilltop temple, where they will place these tributes at the feet of the statue of the deity and pour milk over it.
All along the route of the chariots you will see people, many dressed up in their finest most colourful saris, or wearing orange, the colour of Murugan, throwing coconuts to the ground for good luck, taken from huge piles at the side of the road. Road sweepers quickly move in to brush away the pieces so that the pilgrims don’t cut their bare feet on them. A water truck also proceeds the procession to hose down the tarmac so the pilgrims don’t burn their feet either. You will see occasional dancing by temple dancers, and will be offered refreshments where ever you go. As a celebration of the victory of good over evil the atmosphere is good-humoured and welcoming to interested onlookers throughout.
Up to 1.8 million Hindu devotees are expected to gather throughout the three day festival in Penang this year, with the busiest day being Monday January 21st, at the Hilltop Temple and on Jalan Kebun Bunga (when the statue of the deity will be present. Throughout the three days, charity organizations provide inexpensive or even free vegetarian food, and bottled water and soft drinks to the pilgrims and observers. The largest number of food stalls cluster along the side of Jalan Kebun Bunga and Jalan Gottleib, but you can find them everywhere along the chariot’s route.