Thaipusam celebration in Penang

Thaipusam in Penang

Crowd at the Thaipusam celebration in Penang Malaysia.  Courtesy of

Crowd at the Thaipusam celebration in Penang Malaysia. Courtesy of

The Indian holiday of Thaipusam is coming up this Sunday.  If you’ve had the opportunity to drive down the end of Scotland Road on the way to Jalan Gottlieb you would see the tents that have been set up in preparation for the festivities.  Many of us foreigners living in Penang have no idea what Thaipusam is about, so I did a little research and this is what I found.

My friend Dave Ray started my information gathering.  Last year he spent a week following a group of Kavadi makers (more about this below) living in Penang.  Dave narrated a slideshow of his stunning images, definitely worth your time to watch.

Timing of Thaipusam

The name Thaipusam comes from the Tamil month “Thai”, which falls around January and Februrary, and “Pusam”, one of the stars in the hindu astrology.  Pusam is most austere (prominent) during the full moon of the month of Thai.

The Legend of Thaipusam

The story behind the festival involves the Hindu god, Murugan, also known as Kartikeya (AKA Subramaniam, AKA Sanmukha, AKA Shadanana, AKA Skanda, AKA Guha).  The festival commemorates goddess Parvati, Murugan’s mother, giving Murugan a ‘Vel’.  The Vel is a magical weapon that has sakti or powers that Murugan uses to vanquish three demons, Surapadman, Tarakasuran and Singamugan, representing the forces of ego, passion and greed.

The Observance of Thaipusam

It is said that a true devotee of Murugan will gain the power to overcome ego, passion and greed, if he objserves fasts and spiritual disciplines during the period before Thaipusam.  Some say 3 days of fasting, others say up to 48 days.  Stricter Hindus don’t just fast from food, but from a whole list of activities: sex, sleeping on the floor, and if a death should occur, the devotee would not be able to participate in any mourning ceremonies.

The Kavadi

During Thaipusam in Penang, the devotee carrying the Kavadi, pierced through the cheeks and tongue.  Courtesy of

The devotee carrying the Kavadi, pierced through the cheeks and tongue. Courtesy of

The Kavadi is the burden carried by the devotee who is the designated burden carrier.  I encourage you to watch Dave’s slideshow to see the awe inspiring devotion that goes into making and carrying the Kavadi.  Before putting on the Kavadi, the burden carrier has piercings put through his cheeks and his tongue.  The Kavadi, weighing more than 100 lbs is carried on the shoulders of the devotee.  The devotee then walks, dances and sometimes sprints along the parade route to the Hilltop Temple.

The Trek to Hilltop Temple

In Penang Thaipusam is celebrated at Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) along Jalan Waterfall in Georgetown.  The Penang Hindu Endowment Board (PHEB) told the Star newspaper that a million devotees are expected to throng the  Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple this year.

Family activities

From all reports, this is not a family friendly festival.  Hindu families are expected to meet the burden carrier at the temple.  The Kavadi burdens are quite elaborate, and interesting and will be something to be seen and photographed, but the piercings are pretty graphic and can be scary for younger children unprepared to seeing it.

I would go if a Hindu friend’s family invited me and my family to join them.  I don’t think I would show up on my own.

Please share about Thaipusam in Penang

Have you seen Thaipusam in Penang?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.