Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Thaipusam Festival in Singapore: My 1st Encounter

Thaipusam, sometimes  spelled less often as Thaipoosam, is the annual tradition that has been celebrated for ages in Singapore, but this is my 1st. Since the festival is based on Tamil calendar, so it's different every year on the Gregorian calendar. It usually falls in either Jan and Feb. "Thai" in "Thaipusam" refers to the "10th" month in Tamil. It's usually within a few weeks from CNY (Chinese New Year) because CNY Day also falls within 21 Jan and 20 Feb in any year. This year Thaipusam occurred on 3 Feb, and the next Tamil year starts on 14 April.

As this is my 1st partaking of this colourful festival, as usual, I bumbled through it (the only way to have fun). The more I read about the timing on this festival, the more I was confused. Perhaps, I simply lack the necessary primary reading skills. In any case, I read that the festival procession / parade starts at SSPT (Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple) and finishes at SST (Sri Thendayuthapni Temple). My confused reading suggested it would be finished by noon.

Since I could get there no early than 11am, I decided it would be a good idea to catch the tail-end of the procession in Dhoby Ghaut, which is quite close to SST.

Corner of Penang Rd and Clemenceau Ave
Corner of Penang Rd and Clemenceau Ave where SST is located.
Barricades erected to reserve a traffic lane for the festival procession

At about 11:10am, I asked this nice traffic cop in the photo if the festival was finishing soon, He told me it was going to continue until very late into the night. For those who want to see the preparation for the procession, one should turn up at SSPT at 8 or 9am. I'll probably do that next year.

For most spectators, the most thrilling and for some the most squeamish sights are the kavadi carrying devotees. Many metal hooks of the kavadi are attached into the skins of their bodies, usually the back, as they walked 4.5km from SSPT to SST.

Metal hooks pierced into the body of the kavadi carrying devotee, Singapore


Devotee carrying a kavadi during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore
Devotee carrying a kavadi

Devotee carrying a kavadi during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore


The kavadi that the devotee carried was tall and could be seen from a distance. Its typical pyramidal top of some kavadi remind me of the gopuras on top of Dravidian (southern Hindu) temples such as ones on SSPT and SST. The kavadi is closely associated with the Hindu mythology of Murugan. It's usually decorated with feathers (the vehicle of Lord Murugan).

To perform this grueling task of the 4.5km+ trek of carrying this large kavadi to walk between the 2 temples, the devotee started to prepare themselves 48 days before through the purging of physical and mental impurities.

Different religions have their ways of expressing their devotions through extraordinary demanding physical exercises. Tibetan Buddhists perform their 10,000 prostrations, Filipino Catholics carry out their re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ, and Tamil endure their body-piercings to demonstrate the strength of devotion that transcends physical hardship.

Devotee carrying a kavadi during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore Devotee carrying a kavadi during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore
Devotee with cheek piercing during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore Devotee with cheek piercing during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore


Apart from body piercing, devotees with cheek and tongue piercings could also be seen. You could also see devotees carrying milk offering on their heads.

devotees with tongue piercings in Thaipusam Festival, Singapore devotees with tongue piercings in Thaipusam Festival, Singapore devotees with tongue piercings in Thaipusam Festival, Singapore


Water points, Thaipusam Festival, Singapore
Water points were scattered throughout the 4.5km+ route for the devotees and spectators alike to quench themselves



As I passed one of these water point, I was offered a milky liquid that was stored in a popular take-away drink plastic bag one often seen in Singapore. It tasted like sugar-free yogurt (or yogurt kosong if you're familiar with Singlish). Healthy and nourishing: a greatway to quench my thirst.

Devotee with metal hooks attaching to the body in Thaipusan Festival, Singapore


As if the metal hooks on his upper body wasn't enough, the devotee below also wore a pair of sandals that lined with metal spikes. It's like those Indian bed of nails that the Indian fakirs lie on, only this devotees put his feet on them. I could hear the loud clink as he walked.

Devotee carrying a kavadi during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore
Devotee wearing sandals with metal spikes during Thaipusam Festival, Singapore
Sandals of nails


This festival is banned in its country of origin India, making Singapore and Malaysia the largest celebration of this festival. In other words, if Indians want to witness or participate in this festival, they can do so in Singapore (and a few other places in the world with sizeable Tamil community).

This is interesting because unlike some Asian countries, which is known as the Land of Temples, Singapore is more aptly called the Land of Shopping Malls, and its preoccupation of future looking with its gleaming chrome-steel MRT, ultra-modern airport, glitzy shopping malls, etc. All this is true and at the same time, it's also a country that preserves an ancient tradition from India. Of course, India also sent its spacecraft to Mars last year. Well, this is the kind of extreme contrasts exist in most large countries, and less frequently on a small city-state of Singapore, which makes Singapore unique in this respect.



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