On February 7, Southeast Asia’s sizable Tamil Indian population will celebrate Thaipusam, an annual feast to honor the Hindu god Subramaniam, or Murugan. A procession draws devotees and onlookers with the spectacle of thousands of devotees bearing sacrifices to the Lord Murugan.
The Lord Murugan is venerated as a granter of favors - if a wish is granted, supplicants repay the Lord through sacrifices like bearing the kavadi: a portable altar attached to the devotee by 108 vels, or metal skewers, pierced into the devotee’s skin!
Up to a week before the Thaipusam celebrations, kavadi bearers fast in preparation for the event. Then on the day of Thaipusam, they ask trusted relatives to pierce their cheeks, tongue, face, and other body parts with vels, then load a kavadi onto their shoulders before setting off on the devotional procession.
Kavadis are exquisitely beautiful works of religious art - decorated with peacock feathers, and garnished with aluminum plates bearing pictures of Hindu deities. Some kavadis weigh up to 33 pounds, skewers, feathers, and all - but kavadi bearers make a grand show of carrying the whole grisly ensemble down the parade route. Surprisingly, little to no blood is spilled throughout the procession.
Not all devotees carry kavadis to show their devotion to the Lord Murugan - other devotees join the procession bearing pots of milk called paal kudam, while couples who have been blessed with children over the past year will carry their babies in saffron slings suspended from sugarcane stalks.
Along the procession, thousands of fresh coconuts are smashed, another act of devotion to the Lord Murugan.
Thaipusam in Singapore
In Singapore, the festival is marked with a chariot procession that begins at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at 397 Serangoon Road in the Little India district.
Over 20,000 devotees will join a procession snaking through Little India's Serangoon Road, Selegie Road, Prinsep Street, Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue, concluding at Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on 15 Tank Road.
To get to Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, take the MRT to Farrer Park Station and look at the site map to get to the to Temple.
Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Malaysia
In Malaysia, the most famous Thaipusam celebration happens at the Batu Caves in Gombak District, Selangor.
These caves are composed of three main caves with a few smaller cavelets. To reach the top cave, visitors must climb 272 steps up to the cave opening.
While the cave is open year-round, its visitor profile reaches its height during Thaipusam, as more than a million people crowd to Batu Caves to witness the procession.
As early as 4am, devotees set out from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur to tackle the eight-mile hike on foot. Leading the procession is a jeweled chariot bearing a statue of Lord Murugan, followed by devotees carrying kavadis and other sacrifices.
The procession takes eight hours to reach the Batu Caves. Devotees will then carry the image up the caves’ 272 steps, with the kavadi carriers following, assisted by friends and family. The sound of drums and flutes fill the air, as the procession participants join the music with shouts of "vel, vel, vel".
Once the chariot has reached the cave, devotees leave their kavadis and other sacrifices at the feet of the image of the Lord Murugan.
To get to Gombak district for Thaipusam, you can proceed from Kuala Lumpur's Golden Triangle, where a taxi ride to the Batu Caves will cost you around MYR 20-30. You can also ride the public bus 11 or 11d from the Puduraya Bus Terminal. Alternatively, you can ride Bus 70 and 349 from Lebuh Pudu in Chinatown.
By rail, you can take the KTM commuter train from KL Sentral station to the Sentul Station in Selangor.
Thaipusam Elsewhere in Malaysia
In Penang, Thaipusam is celebrated with a procession from the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani hilltop temple.
In Johor Baru, various temples host Thaipusam processions.
In Ipoh, the Thaipusam procession begins at the Sri Mariamar Temple in Buntong, and ends at the Sri Subramaniam Temple in Gunung Cheroh.