Thaipusam in Singapore 

An Extraordinary Display of Religious Devotion and Sacrifice

18 January 2003

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

18 January 2003 was Thaipusam, one of the most spectacular festivals in Singapore and Malaysia. It's a South Indian festival, usually held in January or February (depending on the Tamil calendar), and in Singapore is celebrated by the local Hindu community, about 6% of the population. Thaipusam is devoted to the worship of Lord Muruga and is most visually characterised by the processions during which devotees carry huge shrines with sharp metal spikes and lots of hooks called kavadi, which pierce into their body. Some wear shoes of nails or pulled along heavy shrines with religious images and iconology through hooks pierced into their torso. There are also many who had sharp piercings through their face or fruits hanging from hooks pierced onto their chest. Through religious faith and trance, very little blood is shed and the devotees endure the pain to march a certain distance (4km in Singapore) as a sacrifice to the gods. Other devotees carry vessels of milk on their heads or shoulders to be presented to Lord Muruga at the end of the procession. Occasionally, some of the devotees would go through a sudden trance and had to be helped or restrained by their entourage. Some of them were full of tears and screaming at the top of their voices. An extraordinary show of intense emotion and religious devotion in a city that sometimes appears to be fairly coldly rational and non-traditional.

This amazing exercise is ironically banned in India, and devotees from India these days come to Singapore and Malaysia to witness how the festival used to be celebrated in India. In modern, hi-tech Singapore, even lawyers, engineers or IT professionals put aside their sophisticated everyday life to put on the kavadi to show their devotion to the gods. There are also many who participate to fulfill their promise to the gods for a favour granted, or to atone for sins committed. They participate in this ancient act of devotion to the gods and two days later they would be in their offices working on their computers. The kavadi-carriers undergo many days of prayers to prepare themselves spiritually and emotionally before the day itself. They are usually accompanied by their friends and family members who encouraged them by cheering them on, chanting religious prayers, dancing or simply giving a helping hand when needed. In multi-racial Singapore, there are also Chinese Hindus and even Taoists who participate in Thaipusam and marched that 4km with heavy kivadis like their fellow Indian Singaporeans. There are also a few Taoist temples which celebrate festivals together with Hindu temples nearby. To the ancient, tolerant religions of South and East Asia - in contrast to the three monotheistic faiths that began in the Middle East - one's faith is only one of the many ways of reaching supreme happiness and salvation. One should live in peace and harmony with one's neighbours who are in the same journey through different highways towards nirvana.

Who says Singapore is boring ?

Carnival Singapore style? Kivadi marchers through the streets of Singapore Carrying the burden of faith
Watch this piercing, endure... a friend shouting words of encouragement Friends helping this guy putting on the kivadi Finally, the kivadi ready
Man carrying a kivadi (he wrote to me later to say he saw this page!) A shoe of nails, on the alter before the march A girl collapsed in a trance, helped by friends.
Let's get this piercing right Checking... checking... OK, you are now ready for the march


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