We have the great fortune of being in Penang, Malaysia, for some of the most important celebrations of the year.
Malaysian people are a colorful ethnic mix of indigenous Malays, Chinese, and Indian, primarily, and these roots are on display in the many religious and cultural festivals, and Penang is home to some of the best. This weekend it is celebrating Thaipusam, a religious festival that occurs on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (sometime in January or February each year).
We have heard and read so many different explanations about the purpose of the different activities that make up Thaipusam that, no matter what I write here, someone will likely believe it to be incorrect. Instead of trying to explain the festival, I’ll include observances, photos, and only a few notes about what we’ve been told.
Though preparations for some take place over weeks or even months, Thaipusam is mostly a 3-day affair. One of the main players in the festival is the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani (or Waterfall Hill) Temple. We wanted to visit this temple, but since news reports suggested that there would be anywhere from 1-1.7 million visitors during the festival, we decided to go the day before.
We took the bus as far as we could go and then walked another 800m or so to the gate of the temple.
All along the streets near the temple people were busy setting up kiosks and stands with food, drinks, services, and shrines. We walked through the gate and found the bottom of the 513 steps we would need to climb to reach the temple. Though Thaipusam had not yet started, there were still many people coming through the gate and heading up the stairs. Everyone was dressed in their finest, or in orange or yellow (orange is a key color for this festival). Almost everyone was barefoot. We checked with a woman at an information table who gave us the thumbs-up to visit the temple, and to wear our shoes on the stairs, removing them before we entered the place of worship.
The stairs were well-shaded by trees and wound their way up the hill with plenty of places where people could rest or stop and admire the views.
At the top is the imposing new (2012) temple, said to be the largest Murugan (Lord Murugan is the main deity within) temple outside of India.
We had read that no photos could be taken inside the temple, but taking one from outside seemed fine and there were no signs.
Once inside, we saw several worshipers taking selfies, but we didn’t want to intrude. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and several stopped to explain details like the significance of Lord Murugan, and the milk offerings that people were bringing in little metal buckets, boxes and bottles. The milk is poured into huge vats, and then Lord Murugan, who is housed inside his own shrine, is doused with the contents. A spigot on the outside of the shrine offers up the now-blessed milk and people take a little in their containers for later consumption. The milk used to flow down the mountainside in troughs, but now the white-painted troughs contain only water.
Outside the temple we heard loud chanting and found a group of people performing a call-and-answer chant, accompanied by drumming. They climbed the stairs and then proceeded slowly around the outside of the temple before entering it. I noticed an older man in the center of the group being assisted by others to walk. Ken pointed out that his footwear appeared to be small beds of nails.
Before we headed back down, we went looking for the facilities and came across an open-air hall set with tables and chairs. We were encouraged to join in a line where free food was on offer. Ken was thrilled to chow down on two plates of noodles (too spicy for this food wimp) and I enjoyed the hot, sweet coffee.
Back at the bottom of the stairs, Ken spoke to two men who were providing what appeared to be ash to those who approached them, either dropping a pinch into an envelope or a hand, or dabbing a little on a forehead. The men explained that they were priests and that the ash was dried rice milk. The forehead dab demonstrated that you had received a blessing. Since the priests would never touch a woman, women take the powder in an envelope or palm and apply it themselves. Men can choose if they want their forehead daubed directly.
Ken asked if it was inappropriate for him to take part and was assured that he was welcome. He removed his shoes, walked around the little shrine, and approached the priests for his blessing.
On the first day of Thaipusam in George Town, two chariots left from the area known as Little India, and made their way to the temple. The chariots left a couple of hours apart, and would take something like 18 hours to cover the 6 km distance.
The process is fascinating. All along the route are piles of coconuts, some being watered down, some afire with incense, and some topped with offerings.
When the chariot gets close to a new area a tanker truck sprays the street to wash it down and cool it for the barefooted procession participants.
Immediately after the tanker truck passes by, devotees hurl the coconuts onto the road, trying to break them open to cleanse the street with the coconut milk. (We have read other coconut stories, but this is what a hindu gentleman told us as we watched.)
Even as coconuts are being hurled, a team heads into the fray to clean the coconuts from the street.
The gold chariot, pulled by worshipers, proceeds slowly along the freshly cleansed road.
Once the procession has passed, a small front-end loader (AKA a Bobcat) swoops in and picks up all of the coconuts and garbage that is left behind.
Though calls have been made to reduce the waste, news reports suggest that tonnes of coconuts were still hurled onto the streets.
All along the route, the streets are decorated here and there with colorful designs, and stalls provide free food to anyone who wants it.
Together with our new Penang friends, we headed toward the location of the second chariot–a silver one pulled by bulls. For the longest time, it sat in front of a colorful temple with the people on board accepting offerings and returning them blessed. Fortunately, we found a great viewing spot at the Beer Factory, so it wasn’t too much of a hardship to wait around.
Finally, the silver chariot moved along, but it was too quick for me to capture a photo of the bulls.
After the parade had passed by, as we walked toward the bus terminal to head home, I saw these two–possibly waiting for their friends to return?
Throughout the festival we saw women with beautifully decorated hair. We also saw many children and occasionally men with their heads shaved and a yellowish paint smeared on their pate.
Day 3 of the festival is the return procession, bringing the carriages back down from the temple, but we are not going to attend.
The second day of the festival is all about Kavadi Attam or the Burden Dance. Though burdens can be as simple as a tin of milk, many participate in body piercing, which comes at the end of many days of prayer and fasting.
Throughout the day, devotees come together on the site of the Lorong Kulit Flea Market and, with teams of helpers, prepare their bodies before taking to the street to dance and carry their burdens. For some, the piercings are the burden as they are weighted down with bells or shells. Others have ropes attached to the hooks in their backs and pull friends along the route or bear the weight of huge and colorful structures.
The preparations are accompanied by a cacophony of call-and-response chants, drumming, and other music.
Though we have difficulty understanding why anyone would choose to take part in what seems to be a painful and unnecessary practice, we choose to observe and appreciate rather than to judge. (One of our Grab drivers told us that if someone asks Lord Murguran for something one year and they receive it, it is very risky not to take part in this Burden Dance the following year.)
Warning: Some of the images in this section may make you cringe. The photos are at the end of the post, so stop now if you feel uncomfortable.
The following resources helped us learn about the festival and good viewing locations.
- A topic in Trip Advisor’s Penang forum provided really good details about the festival structure, and where to see the different parts.
- An article in the Penang Free Sheet provided some background on the festival and current information.
- An article in The Star Online explained the origins of the different chariots.