Thaipusam is a temple festival celebrated by Hindus of Tamil descent in Singapore.1 It is probably the single most important public rite observed by the community every year between January 14 and February 14.2 Most Hindu festivals fall either on full-moon day (Punarpusam) or on new-moon day (Amavasi).3 “Thai Pusam” occurs on the full moon day in the Tamil month, Thai (January–February).4 Thaipusam is actually derived from thai which means “10th”, and pusam meaning “when the moon is at its brightest”.5 It is thus celebrated in the month of Thai (10th month according to the Tamil Almanac) on the day when the moon passes through the star “Pusam”.6 Thaipusam is a day of prayers and penance.7 Dedicated to Lord Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan,8 a major South Indian god,9 the deity of youth, power and virtue, this festival is a time for repentance for devotees with celebrations carried out mainly at the temple.
Preparations for Thaipusam start months in advance. But the conditioning of the body and mind is done about a week before the festival itself.10 Devotees prepare themselves spiritually with extensive prayer and fasting before performing acts of penance or thanksgiving like carrying a kavadi. The basic kavadi consists of a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch, decorated with peacock feathers (symbolic of Murugan, as the peacock is his mascot), margosa leaves and other materials.11 Often, sharp skewers are pierced through the tongues, cheeks and bodies of kavadi-bearers as a practice of self-mortification.12 Women, on the other hand, carry vessels with offerings that include fruits, flowers and pots of milk.13 Thaipusam was a public holiday in Singapore until 196814 when Bill No. 33/68 was effected in the Holidays (Amendment) Act, 1968.15 This change was made in consultation with the Hindu Advisory Board.16
This Hindu festival commemorates the feats of the Hindu deity, Lord Subramaniam, son of Lord Siva17 and Goddess Sakti.18 According to the Hindu mythological book, “Skanda Purana,” Thaipusam was the day when Lord Subramaniam appeared before his devotees mounted on a peacock19 which has come to be known as his “vahana”’ or vehicle.20 It also acknowledges Subramaniam’s triumph over the evil forces. According to the legend, devas or celestial beings at one time were so plagued by asura, or demons, that they pleaded with Lord Siva, to help them. Touched by their pleas, Lord Siva sent his son Subramaniam to conquer the asuras. After accomplishing this task, the victorious Subramaniam was believed to have appeared before his devotees. In the vision, he was bedecked with brilliant jewels, armed with a golden spear and seated on a chariot.21 Thus, on Thaipusam day, Lord Subramaniam’s image, adorned and decorated, is placed on a silver chariot before his devotees. This is then taken in a procession.22 Besides being acknowledged as a symbol of bravery, power, virtue, and beauty,23 the Hindus believe that Lord Subramaniam is also the universal dispenser of favours.24 Hence, some who have made vows and pledges to Lord Subramaniam prove their gratitude to him by undergoing self-mortification on Thaipusam day.25 Penitents in fulfilment of vows carry the kavadi.26
Rites, rituals and sacrifices
The most popular form of sacrifice is the carrying of the kavadi 27 which means “sacrifice at every step”.28 It is the kavadi that identifies the festival of Thaipusam.29 Legend has it that Iduban, a devotee of Lord Subramaniam, carried an offering which so pleased him that he showered his people with good fortune. The burden carried by Iduban has passed down in the form of the kavadi.30 Devotees carry the kavadis to ask for forgiveness, keep a vow or offer thanks to Lord Subramaniam.31 The symbolism of carrying the kavadi originates from a myth where the kavadi represents a mountain with Lord Subramaniam at its apex. The smaller, semi-circular kavadi is a steel or D-shaped wooden frame32 with bars for support on the shoulders, normally decorated with flowers and peacock feathers.33 Other forms of sacrifice include piercing silver pins through the cheek and tongue and pricking the body with hooks and spear-like needles.34 The piercing of flesh in connection with carrying kavadi is central to Thaipusam as the rite is understood in Singapore. It is closely associated with the Hindu concepts of ritual purity and pollution.35 A kavadi carrier can have as many as 100 spears piercing his flesh, but apparently loses little blood, sustained by faith in a trancelike state.36 The devotees who intend to perform the sacrifice are customarily required to observe strict physical and mental discipline. Throughout the tenth month of Thai, purification of the body is a necessity. This includes taking just one vegetarian meal a day, and sexual abstinence. In addition, a 24-hour fast is observed on the eve of Thaipusam.37 Most women devotees carry a pot of milk called a palkuddam. The milk is poured over the statue of Lord Subramaniam at the end of the procession.38 Those who take part are usually individuals who have asked the deity for a favour. In return, they vow to undergo the ritual test of physical and spiritual endurance.39 Apart from those who go to the temples on Thaipusam day to fulfil their vows and to do penance, there are others who go with their families to offer prayers and to seek spiritual solace.40
The deeply religious festival is a spectacular sight largely because of the colourful procession of bare-footed41 devotees carrying the kavadi along public roads.42 The Hindu Endowments Board helps to organise the annual ceremony.43 For years in Singapore, the traditional route for kavadi bearers has been from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to Tank Road.44 Thousands gathered and crowded the temple grounds by midnight.45 The kavadi carriers, together with their relatives, friends and well-wishers, congregate here in the morning to participate in the three- to four-kilometre46 procession to their final destination at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple,47 commonly known as the Murugan Temple or Chettiar’s Temple. The 136-year-old48 temple is an establishment belonging to the Nattukottai Chettiar community, a caste of merchants and moneylenders.49 The kavadi procession starts as early as 4am.50 Leaving at intervals of 15 minutes, the last kavadi group leaves at 7.30pm.51 The devotees used to stop for a while in front of the Sivan Temple in Orchard to pay homage to Lord Siva. The Sri Sivan Temple has since been relocated on Serangoon Road, and the half-way halt was not required. Instead, arrangements were made for them to pay their homage to Lord Siva before they start the procession.52 All along the way, devotees chant hymns in praise of the deity.53 The celebrants following the procession chant “Vel, vel, kavadi”.54 The belief is that Lord Murugan was given an invincible spear, “Vel”, which he used successfully to overcome the demons.55 The arrival of the kavadi carriers at the Murugan Temple at Tank Road marks the accomplishment of their task.56 A mixture of fruits and honey is prepared and distributed among the devotees. Thousands of poor are fed for three days in the temple precincts.57 A ceremony is commonly held in the devotee’s home thereafter. A domestic worship of Murugan is performed followed by a festive meal served to family and friends.58
1. Lawrence A. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore: Religious Individualism in a Hierarchical Culture (Singapore: Chopmen Enterprises, 1976), 5. (Call no. RSING 294.536 BAB)
2. “Thaipusam in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 10 February 1933, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
3. E. V. Singhan, Thaipusam (Singapore: EVS Enterprises, 1976), 3. (Call no. RSING 294.536 SIN)
4. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 5.
5. “Thaipusam,” Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr., (1976), 11. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
6. Singhan, Thaipusam, 3.
7. Singhan, Thaipusam, 9.
8. “A Day of Homage and Ritual for Hindus,” Straits Times, 29 January 1991, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 6.
10. “In Honour of Lord Subrahmaniam,” The Citizen, 11, no. 5 (1 March 1982), 15. Available via PublicationSG.
11. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 8.
12. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 9.
13. “Honour of Lord Subrahmaniam,” 15.
14. “Thaipusam As Public Holiday: MOM Replies,” Ministry of Manpower, last retrieved 13 May 2016.
15. Singapore. Parliament, Holiday (Amendment) Bill 1968, Bill 22 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 11 July 1968. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
16. Ministry of Information and the Art, “Statement from the Prime Minister’s Office,” Press release, 9 June 1968. (From National Archives of Singapore)
17. “Thaipusam,” 11.
18. Thaipusam Souvenir Magazine, (Singapore: Star Press, 1977), 10. (Available via PublicationSG)
19. Pelham Groom, “Thaipusam Is When Temple Treasures Go on Show,” Straits Times, 29 January 1959, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Honour of Lord Subrahmaniam,” 15.
21. “Thaipusam,” 11.
22. Singhan, Thaipusam, 4.
23. “Day of Homage and Ritual for Hindus.”
24. Singhan, Thaipusam, 9.
25. “Thaipusam,” 11.
26. Singhan, Thaipusam, 8.
27. “Thaipusam,” 11.
28. R. Donovan, “Thaipusam: Festival of Faith,” Connoisseur’s Asia, (1989): 27. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 CA)
29. Donovan, Thaipusam: Festival of Faith,” 27.
30. “An Auspicious Day Dedicated to Lord Murugan,” Straits Times, 13 February 1987, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Day of Homage and Ritual for Hindus.”
32. “10,000 Hindus in Colony Celebration,” Straits Times, 3 February 1950, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Thaipusam,” 11.
34. “Thaipusam,” 11.
35. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 17.
36. Singhan, Thaipusam, 6.
37. “Thaipusam,” 11.
38. “Thaipusam,” The Singapore Heritage, 3 (February 1984): 6. (Call no. RCLOS q959.57)
39. P. Seward, “Thaipusam: A Celebration of the Triumph of Good over Evil,” The Mandarin, (1994): 17. (Call no. RSING 052 M)
40. “Thaipusam,” 6.
41. M. Nirmala, “More Hindu Devotees Carrying Kavadis Now,” Straits Times, 18 January 1995, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “Thaipusam,” 6.
43. Nirmala, “More Hindu Devotees Carrying Kavadis Now.”
44. S. V. Krishnan, “Thaipusam,” Straits Times, 13 January 1984, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
45. S. Ramesh, “Another Successful Thaipusam,” Singapore Hindu, 8, no. 2 (April–June 1997): 16. (Call no. RSING 294.505 SH)
46. M. Nirmala, “Not a Carnival,” Straits Times, 7 February 1991, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Ramesh, “Another Successful Thaipusam,” 16.
47. “Thaipusam,” 11.
48. Nirmala, “Not a Carnival.”
49. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 6.
50. “Thaipusam,” 6.
51. Krishnan, “Thaipusam.”
52. Krishnan, “Thaipusam.”
53. “Thaipusam,” 11.
54. “Thaipusam,” 6.
55. “Auspicious Day Dedicated to Lord Murugan.”
56. “Thaipusam,” 11.
57. “Hundred Indian Penitents Preparing for Thaipusam,” Straits Times, 9 January 1938, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
58. Babb, Thaipusam in Singapore, 11.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not into be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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