Joaquim Magalhães de Castro
In the Malaysian cities of Georgetown (Penang Island) and Kuala Lumpur the Lunar New Year is preceded by a religious event capable of attracting more people to the streets than the traditional Chinese solemnity. I am referring to the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which has its most visible expression in the cellars of Batu, a few kilometers north of the capital of Malaysia, although the streets of Penang have a large crowd, and with the distinctive peculiarity: among devotees we see not only the usual Tamil, but also Chinese, who incorporate the Hindu cult into their already syncretic Taoism. In addition to the crowd, as simple spectators, many foreigners and the occasional Muslim native, as a rule averse to any kind of pagan manifestation.
It is Thaipusam feast dedicated to Murugan, son of Parvati and Shiva, brother of Ganesha, deity with many versions in Hinduism, particularly venerated in South India and Ceylon, whom the faithful pray to overcome the obstacles. Also a symbol of virtue, bravery, youth, beauty and universal dispenser of favors, he is shown gratitude, in the fulfillment of vows and promises, with acts of self-mortification on that day of the tenth month of the Tamil (thai) calendar, when the moon the more it shines (put), hence the term Thaipusam.
The kavadi (literally “sacrifice at every step”) can be either a structure of aluminum, three to four meters high and thirty and a kilos in weight, decorated with peacock feathers and topped with the image of Murugan, as a simple pot of tin or copper containing milk that is carried on the head. Before placing the kavadi, and after entering into an induced trance, the penitent leaves that credited officiant will cross his cheeks with an arrow-shaped skewer or trident, and on the forehead attach several pending with the help of a species of hook, sometimes in such a quantity that it blurs the eye to the fakir. There are those who, in a more radical attitude, also pierce the tongue. Those who not carry kavadi compensate the sacrifice by covering the torso with small bells, lemons or even coconuts attached to the skin by the said hooks. The more daring go to the point of testing the limits of the elasticity of the same by affixing on the upper lumbar hooks attached to ropes that the best of the friends is in charge of pulling while the penitente advances. There are those who resort to this process to move heavy chariots! It is indeed an amazing thing to witness. They ensure that the kavadi bearers feel no pain while they undergo the task and no scar leaves such a feat.
“It is something of a miracle,” they attest to those who do not share the belief, in the case of local Christians and Muslims. In this challenge – also accepted by women, although they do not commit great exaggerations – there is a sort of deaf competition between Tamils and Chinese. The secret seems to be in preparation for such an arduous task. Months and a half before Thaipusam should devotees abide by strict diet, refraining from any kind of stimulants. “Clarity of mind and physical health” is essential. On the morning of the festival, by the temples the devotees submit themselves to hooks and spikes, encouraged by the syncopated cries of friends and family. There are those who shave their heads covering them with ash as a sign of material dispossession. There are several kilometers to go, under a scorching sun and a definite route and along it huge tents patronized by colorful altars dedicated to the various Hindu deities. Protected by awnings sit the spectators. Yes, because it’s a show we talking about. With lots of dancing and raucous music that overcomes the noise of the mob that go up and down the street. In the day of Thaipusam, food and drink is on the house. Certainly to please the gods and receive their blessings, it’s all a hustle and bustle among the employees and owners of the restaurants and associations that volunteered to feed the thousands of people present.
A fourth-generation Chinese native of Penang assures me that he participates every year and that the family never forgets to “pay homage to Lord Murugan, near the Waterfall Temple,” one of the three Hindu places of worship and final destination of all pilgrims. The Chinese refer to Murugan as Ti Ti Ang Kong, or “the god of the Chetis,” and the miracles attributed to them abound: from the healing of the sick on the deathbed to the exorcism of enemies and thieves.
Although they do not dominate the Hindu pantheon, the Chinese in Penang are as devout as the Tamil compatriots, as I proved on the morning when they prepared to carry the kavadis. And that devotion also extends to Ganesha, the “elephant god.” I saw them, young and old, clasping their hands in prayer and lighting pivots in front of his altar. After all, it is he who intercedes when one intends to succeed in any kind of business.