A Journey of Devotion - Celebrating Thaipusam in Singapore

While many Singaporeans will recognise its name, Thaipusam’s roots, rituals and practitioners are still unfamiliar to many. This important festival is celebrated every year, primarily by Singapore’s Tamil Hindu community, on the full-moon day of the Tamil month of Thai. For many believers, Thaipusam is a time of devotion, sacrifice and thanksgiving, dedicated to the Hindu god Murugan, who symbolises bravery, power and virtue.

The festival commemorates Lord Murugan’s victory over evil forces with a vel, or spear, which is why spears are a significant part of the festival. One of the most recognisable elements of Thaipusam is the ceremonial procession of the kavadi-bearers – men who walk carrying large metal structures known as kavadi, which are fixed with spikes or hooks that pierce their bodies. Believers bear the kavadi, which translates to “sacrifice at every step”, in order to fulfil vows made to Lord Murugan, or as an expression of thanks to the deity.
Thaipusam

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Footage of Thaipusam as it was celebrated in Singapore during the 1960s

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The Legend of Murugan and Idumban

The practice of carrying kavadi originates in a legend from the Puranas, a collection of sacred, ancient Sanskrit texts. According to legend, Idumban was instructed by his master, Saint Agasthya, to go to the Mount Kailai range and fetch two hills belonging to Lord Murugan. Idumban took the two hills, tied them together, and carried them on his shoulders. But on his way back, Idumban became lost.

Lord Murugan then appeared to Idumban in the form of a king and led him to a place called Thiruvavinankudi (or Palani). There, he asked Idumban to rest before continuing on his journey.

Once rested, Idumban tried to lift his load again, but found that he could not. Then a child in a loincloth appeared on top of one of the hills and claimed ownership over them. Angered, Idumban attacked the child, but was defeated. Idumban then realised that the child was none other than Lord Murugan himself.

Idumban pleaded for Lord Murugan’s forgiveness. He also begged the deity to grant him a blessing – that whoever worships Lord Murugan carrying an object resembling two hills suspended from a pole would be given their heart’s desire. Lord Murugan granted Idumban this wish and also added that those who carried sandalwood, milk and flowers in a kavadi to his shrine would also be blessed. To this day, those who wish to be blessed by Lord Murugan continue the practice of carrying kavadi.
Murugan

Murugan surrounded by planetary deities

Early-mid 19th century, Sri Lanka

Wood with watercolours

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum

This painting shows a three-headed standing Murugan with a peacock vehicle. It demonstrates the absorption of Hindu deities into Buddhism. Murugan worship at Kadirgama, a sacred shrine in Sri Lanka, is very popular with Hindus, Buddhist and Muslims worshippers alike. The painting has been done using waterbased colours on wood.

Murugan

Hindu deity, Murugan

20th century, Singapore

Stone

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum

Thaipusam in Singapore

While Thaipusam is celebrated by Hindus all over the world, the festival is particularly significant for the Tamil communities of Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, Thaipusam has been a major religious festival for over a hundred years, and preparations for the entire festival start months before the actual procession. Kavadi-bearers also take special care to condition their minds and bodies beforehand so that they may safely perform their rites of devotion, while other devotees prepare themselves spiritually with prayers, fasting, and acts of penance.
A Thaipusam devotee

A Thaipusam devotee

Early 20th century, Singapore or Malaysia

Collection of National Museum of Singapore

This black and white postcard shows a Thaipusam devotee in Singapore. The festival Thaipusam involves the procession of devotees carrying kavadi in penitence or thanksgiving, from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Thendayuthapain Temple on Tank Road. The traditional Kavadi is a wooden arch on a wooden base, decorated with peacock feathers and supporting various offerings such as flowers and fruits and pots of milk or sometimes sugar. In recent years heavy metal kavadi have been used by some.

A chariot at a Thaipusam procession

A chariot at a Thaipusam procession

Early 20th century, Singapore

Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan, the deity of youth, power and virtue. The festival is celebrated every year on the full moon day in the month of Thai (usually between January and February). A kavadi (meaning "sacrifice at every step") is a symbolic heavy object like a jar filled with milk or a large, ornate chariot like the one in the photograph.

indian devotee at thaipusam

An Indian Devotee at the Thaipusam Festival, Singapore

1934, Singapore

National Archives of Singapore

An Indian devotee carrying a kavadi at the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, Singapore

Tracing the Devotees Path

On Thaipusam, kavadi-bearers and their supporters walk the traditional route, which starts at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road, and ends at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road. Barefoot, kavadi-bearers walk this path that is more than a hundred years old, while other worshippers carry offerings such as paalkudams or milk pots, fruit and flowers. Along the way, devotees may pause in front of the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, where they pray for the goddess Kaliamman’s blessings.

A Journey of Devotion

Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

Singapore

National Monument

Formerly known as Sri Narasimha Perumal Temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple is the first Hindu temple in Singapore dedicated to Sri Perumal, the Hindu deity more commonly known as Vishnu. Even though the impressive structure standing today was built in the 1960s, the temple is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples in terms of establishment. Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple serves as a reminder of the Indian community’s contributions to the development of Singapore over the years.

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple

Singapore

National Monument

Commonly referred to as the Chettiars’ Temple, is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu deity who is also known as Sri Thendayuthapani. It stands as a living testimony to the Chettiars’ contributions to Singapore’s colonial economy.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

Singapore

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is Singapore’s first temple dedicated to Veeramakaliamman or the goddess Kali, a fierce incarnation of Shiva’s wife and “Destroyer of Evil.” Hindus also believe that she destroys ignorance and protects her devotees by maintaining world order. Many pioneering Indian settlers here turned to her for a sense of security in a foreign land. They also asked the goddess for help in getting promoted or to be free from illness, while barren women sought her help to regain their fertility.

Journeys of Devotion

While kavadi-bearers might be the most recognisable figures of Thaipusam, it takes an entire community to make the festival possible. From piercers to friends and family, every individual journey of devotion is important, with each person making a significant contribution to the festival in their own way. Here are some of their stories.

Journeys of Devotion: The Kavadi-bearer

Kavadi-bearers often begin conditioning their minds and bodies weeks before Thaipusam, by fasting, or having simple vegetarian meals, observing celibacy, and abstaining from creature comforts such sleeping on beds. Preparations also include obtaining a kavadi from a traditional craftsmen, or even designing their own. Personal details are often added to each kavadi to express a believer’s personal relationship with their god.

Kavadi Bearer

Each kavadi-bearer’s journey is unique. Murali Raj, who has been carrying kavadi for over a decade, shares his experience: “[I carried my] first kavadi 15 years ago – it was the spike kavadi. It’s not those small arch kavadis, it’s the one where you carry the whole figure, which is supported using the belt.”

“For my first piercing, I was nervous, not knowing what the feeling would be like. It was just like an ant bite, but to have continuous piercings one after the other – that’s when you will just have to endure it. But what actually makes the difference is the traditional music that is being played, and your family and friends singing the religious songs. I think that’s what diverts your mind and so you don’t concentrate on the pain when you’re getting pierced.”

At the end of the walk, he adds, “You can’t express the happiness because you’re so-called ‘caged up’. But you dance towards the celebration, you dance with the kavadi as a form of enjoyment, fulfillment. It’s a form of fulfilment that whatever that I vowed, it’s been granted, and that’s what makes me want to carry on. Whatever I can do for Murugan, I just do it for him – in the name of devotion, and not anything else.”

kavadi NC

Kavadi

20th century, South India

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum

This semi-circular decorated canopy supported with wooden cross-pieces is called a kavadi, meaning 'burden' or 'load'. Decorated with peacock feathers, palm leaves, milk pots and flowers, it is carried on the shoulders of Hindu devotees during Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community in the month of Thai (January-February) on the day of the star, Pusam around Pournami (Full Moon). It commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan (also Subramaniam), the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, and also the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (lance) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. In order to thank the god Murugan, by means of a vow and the offering of a sacrifice, believers carry the kavadi. On the festival day, the devotee may also carry two pots of milk to the temple. Devotees also may pierce their skin, tongue or cheeks with various needles, pins and hooks.

A Hindu devotee carrying a kavadi

A Hindu devotee carrying a ‘kavadi’

1970s-1980s, Singapore

Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Thaipusam is an annual Hindu festival held in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ (usually in January or February) to honour Lord Subramaniam (or Lord Murugan), son of Lord Shiva. In Singapore, the Thaipusam procession starts at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and ends at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. The devotees carry ‘kavadis’, a semi-circular steel or wood structure, on their shoulders with hooks, needles, spikes and spears piercing their bodies as a form of self-mortification.

Journeys of Devotion: The Piercer

One of the most fascinating aspects of Thaipusam is that, often, no blood can be seen from the piercings that are made onto the kavadi-bearer’s skin. This is attributed to the spiritual essence of the ritual, but is also largely due to the skill and know-how of the piercers themselves. All piercers participate on a voluntary basis and some, like Tamilchelvan Suppiah, are highly in demand for their decades of experience.

Piercer

“I got involved from a young age,” recalls Tamilchelvan. “A person called P. Nanthakumar was the one who taught me how to pierce and most of the prayers – he taught me what to do in the traditional and proper way.”

“One day, he was carrying the kavadi, and one of the piercers did not turn up because he was busy or somewhere else. Then he just called me, “Come, Chelvan, you just poke for me.” Then I was scared and unable to do it because I was afraid. Then he just encouraged me – “I’ve already taught you how to do it, then why don’t you do it?”

Having volunteered as a piercer for over 40 years, Tamilchelvan is a mainstay of the Thaipusam community. “It’s changed me a lot in my life,” he says. “On that day, I feel grateful to Lord Murugan and the devotees who give me a chance to do it. Surrounded by a lot of devotees, everybody is feeling at peace and calm in their own thoughts. I feel very happy... It feels like I’m in a spiritual world.”

 

hook NC

Forehead pin

20th century, South India

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum

This fish hook, attached with 'vel-shaped' pins, is pierced around a devotee's forehead during 'Thaipusam', a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community in the month of 'Thai' (January-February) and the day of the star, 'Pusam' around ‘Pournami’ (full moon). The festival commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan (also Subramaniam), the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, and the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (lance) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. On the day of the festival, the devotee may carry a kavadi, a semi-circular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders, to the temple carrying two pots of milk. Devotees also may pierce their skin, tongue or cheeks with vel.

Journeys of Devotion: The Musician

Traditionally, live music forms a significant part of the Thaipusam procession. Hymns are often sung by friends and family, and religious songs known as bhajans are also sung by groups of musicians who follow kavadi-bearers – to boost their spirits as they make their arduous journey. 

Musician

“My day typically starts early,” says Jathishweran Naidu, a Thavil player who has participated as a musician for several years.  “I come to the Perumal temple in the wee hours and the first and foremost important thing to do is to pay respect to the deities at the temple. Then we go and have a look around to see the different kinds of kavadis that are on display. People actually put in a lot of effort into doing up their kavadis, so it is quite a sight. Finally, we settle down for someone’s kavadi and then we start the bhajans there and we follow him throughout his journey.”

For Jathish, celebrating Thaipusam brings him back to his roots and contributes to an important sense of community: “From the time my dad started carrying the kavadi, I was always part of Thaipusam,” he recalls. “Every year we look forward to this because it brings everyone together. Everything is interconnected – to me, by helping the kavadi-bearers getting from one end to the other, we are doing what we can. It makes me feel good, especially when the kavadi-bearers come and say thank you at the end of the day. I'm quite thankful to be a part of it.”

 

Journeys of Devotion: The Thaneer Panthal Volunteer

Along the route, volunteers at various thaneer panthal – or water points – pour water onto the feet of kavadi-bearers to relieve them from walking barefoot on the hot tarmac, and also offer food and water to the rest of the community. 

Volunteer

“We are not just giving people water, but making them feel looked after and giving refreshments to people who have spent the whole day helping others too,” says Mano Manikam, who has volunteered at the Vel Murugan Thaneer Panthal for over a decade.

Even for those not carrying kavadis, preparations for Thaipusam can be intense and time-consuming. “On the eve, we’re already there to prepare. We do our own prayers for the tentage, and we make an effort to decorate it with traditional banana trees, flowers and garlands,” explains Mano. “We sleep overnight in the tent itself, because the activity has pretty much started – the milk pot carriers are there just before midnight on the eve.”

Like many, Mano finds the spiritual fulfillment and social bonds at Thaipusam to be worth every effort:  “We are giving back to Lord Murugan by giving back to our community – whether you’re clearing rubbish or setting up safety structures, everyone is doing it as part of offering to God. I’ve been volunteering for close to 14 years now, so I’ve seen the kids of friends, who are now teenagers, also coming into it. So that, for me, is a very satisfying thing to see. To be part of it is something that I’d never want to miss.”

Journeys of Devotion: Friends and Family

Friends and family also play an essential role in the Thaipusam procession. “When someone is carrying kavadi or milk pot, the moral support [from friends and family], the songs they sing, is absolutely important to the person doing the ritual,” explains Mano. Supporters walk alongside the kavadi-bearers shouting “Vel! Vel!” and singing hymns or Bhajans to motivate the kavadi-bearers and give them encouragement to complete their walk. “As long as you are wholly involved in this festival,” adds Mano, “you’re playing a role that is absolutely critical.”
pot nc

Pot

20th century, South India

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum

This small brass milk pot is carried by Hindu devotees during 'Thaipusam', a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community in the month of 'Thai' (January-February) and the day of the star, 'Pusam' around ‘Pournami’ (full moon). It commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan (also Subramaniam), the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, and the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (lance) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. On the day of the festival, the devotee may carry a kavadi, a semi-circular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders, to the temple carrying two pots of milk. Devotees also may pierce their skin, tongue or cheeks with vel.

Participating in Thaipusam

Excited to learn more about Thaipusam? Why not experience it for yourself! Thaipusam is an important expression of our multicultural nation, and all Singaporeans – regardless of their belief – can observe and even participate in the festival.

In 2020, Thaipusam falls on Saturday, 8 February. Recommended locations for observing the procession are along Serangoon Road, all the way to Tank Road. As a sign of respect, avoid entering the temples where devotees fulfill their vows. Come attired in clothes that cover your shoulders and knees. Generally, clothing also should be loose and not revealing, as befits a religious festival. Observers are welcome to take photographs, but should do so discreetly and respectfully, without blocking devotees’ paths. For more helpful information, visit https://thaipusam.sg/.

Don’t forget to share your Thaipusam stories with us by tagging #thaipusamsg, #oursgheritage and #intangibleculturalheritage on social media.