In the panchayat town of Thiruparakundram, one of the six abodes of Lord Murugan the celebrations of the Thaipusam festival are afoot. Thaipusam, a Tamil festival celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai commences the occasion when Goddess Parvati gave Murugan a vel ‘spear’ so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. Thousands of Hindus pay tribute to Lord Munugan and attend kavadi during this two-day festival.
I was fortunate enough to witness this spectacle in the town of Thiruparakundram. One of the many attractions of India is the sheer abundance of religious and cultural festivities. Culture and religion seem to be intertwined, you cannot possibly separate one from the other. This spiritual essence and unity is something that immediately attracts you to India and its people.
With over 80% of practicing Hindus, religious festivities such as Thaipusam attract a large crowd. Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves of any physical or mental impurities through prayer and fasting. These preparations can start approximately 48 days before the festival and can include bathing in cold water, sleeping on the floor, transcendence of desire and following a vegetarian diet of one meal a day.
There are more extreme measures to show your devotion during the two-day festival. I use the word ‘extreme’ here in the context of my Western ideology, where practices such as Vel Kavali, where devotees piece their bodies with small hooks and skewers called ‘vel’.
My ignorance of this practice only makes me a hungrier spectator. Passing by me on the street are men, women and children all participating in Vel Kavali. They have pierced the skin of their cheeks through which a long, thin skewer hangs which they either balance or support with their hands. One-man carries a portable alter decorated with peacock feathers, which is called a Kavadi attached via 108 vels pieced through his skin, chest and back. Another man is practicing Parakum Kavali, flying through the air held up by chains gouged through his back and legs. I must admit that I did feel a little squeamish at seeing this, but nevertheless I was amazed that someone could endure such an intense physical burden. I had the desire to ask the burning question, why and how?
Thaiposum is dedicated to the Tamil God Lord Murugan who killed the evil demon Soorapadman with a vel ‘spear’. Murugan’s vel is a symbolic representation for power and higher intelligence. This ‘spear’ is then pieced through the skin of the chosen devotees as a sign of their affection level to their god. Such an intense level of devotion is not prescribed for all devotees. Women and children often exercise Paal Kavadi, which refers to the practice of carrying a brass jug of milk on their heads. Milk is considered to be a pure substance and thus is used in many religious festivities. In a kind of pilgrim march all devotees will travel, often for many miles to the temple to give their offerings.
Arriving in the town of Thiruparakundram, which houses the famous Thiruparakundram Murugan Temple I am surrounded by hundreds of devotees all with offerings of milk, food, oil, honey and flowers. Although this is all completely foreign for me I cannot help but be swept away in their spiritual aura. The scent of incense permeates as I become lost in this atmosphere of sincere devotion.
It is away from the hustle and bustle of the temple that I am able to have a one-on-one interview with priest and teacher, S. Nagaraja Siyam who will enlighten me on the practices of the Thaipusam Festival. Having just witnessed mortification of the flesh, children with piercings through their cheeks, women with shaved heads (a very rare sight in India) where the colors of saffron, white, black and blue saturate, I have a list of burning questions to ask.
How do people sustain such an intense physical burden?
The mortification of flesh is a completely personal choice. The more affection one feels to their god, the more pain they may wish to endure. Piercing the skin is a way of ensuring that bad evil should go back to god and not persist in the devotee’s life. The extent that someone sacrifices or offers something to Lord Munugan depends completely on the person. It is an impartial celebration; there are no restrictions on age or sex. This means that both men and women can participate in Vel Kavali.
I am curious to know if any devotee has been hospitalized or seriously wounded due to this practice. Upon asking this I am answered with a very clear ‘no’. Devotees are able to obtain a trance-like state in which they feel no pain, not bleed from their wounds and leave no scars. I am amazed at their spiritual strength. The ability to control the body is achievable, but to control the mind to remain on a single focus is a far more difficult task and takes practice. Yet, despite this barrier I witnessed young children participating in Vel Kavadi, disregarding the pain of having your flesh flagellated by imploring the help of Lord Murugan.
There are many other ways that devotees can show their devotion to Lord Murugan. While I was wandering around the temple I noticed a number of people with their heads shaved. Within a western context this sight would have no cause for alarm, yet here in Tamil Nadu it is an uncommon display. After three weeks of living in Madurai I have come to realize that hair is a very important commodity. None of the women have short hair but rather prefer to grow it long and style it in a low ponytail or plait. The maintenance and styling of the hair is important where beautiful clips adorn the girl’s dark locks and hints of purple, pink and orange flowers are clipped to the sides.
If a devotee does not have anything to offer to Lord Munugan they will offer their hair. In a culture embellished with gold ornaments, effervescent colors and trimmings, plainness is unappealing and frowned upon. The ideology in India is that when you shave your hair you become plain and therefore by offering Lord Murugan your hair you are sacrificing your beauty.
The birthday of Lord Murugan in the Vaikasi month (May, June) follows a similar pattern of festivities as Thaipusam. I am interested to know if Vaikasi Visakam is as large a celebration. However I am informed that both festivals are equally as important in the Tamil calendar, although it is depends on the Temple. During Vaikasi Visakam they follow the same procedure as Thaiposum at the Thiruparakundram Murugan Temple. Over 5,000 liters of milk I am told is used during Vaikasi Visakam as an offering to Lord Murugan.
The Tami god Lord Murugan is an important deity in the region of Tamil Nadu, so it is little wonder that Thaipusam should attract such a large devotee following. During the course of the day I am swept up in a tidal wave of religious and spiritual festivity. Having witnessed and experienced the religious spectacle that is Thaiposuam, I am beginning to appreciate the extent of how religion and Indian culture are completely emerged into one another.