Thaipusam: an unforgettable experience

Thaipusam: an unforgettable experience

About a month or two ago, a friend of mine called to inform me that we were going on an tour called "Understanding Thaipusam."

Um....What's Thaipusam?

Other than the fact that it was a Hindu holiday, she didn't know. She had just heard that we shouldn't miss it.

Well, I've been to Little India a few times and each time has been a great experience. My photography class during Deepavli was fantastic and I still marvel at how much color, energy, movement, music, etc can be packed into such a small area. Even not having a clue what I was in for, I knew I was going. As soon as we got off the phone, I called and signed up.

We've kind of started doing that to each other. When one of us wants to sign up for something but would really like to know a friendly face when we get there, we just let the other one know when they are booked. It's a good system. :D

So, Tuesday morning I packed up my camera with a freshly charged battery and headed off to meet the tour group. On our way to Little India and the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, our guide gave us more background on the Hindu festival and how it came to being.

Festival Thaipusam in Singapore is observed to commemorate the devotion of Idumban. A devotee of Lord Subramaniam, Idumban was instructed by a divine messenger to climb up the hill to pay homage to his Lord. Idumban climbed up the hill singing hymns in praise of Lord Subramanium in order to relieve himself of the weight of offerings. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Subramanium showered his blessings on Idumban. Thus the festival marks the unflinching belief of Idumban to the Lord Subramanium. It is believed, that any devotee who would carry a Kavadi on his way to the shrine will be similarly blessed by the Lord.

The preparation for the trek to the shrine begins a month earlier. A devotee willing to undertake such journey must remain on a vegetarian diet. Apart from that, austerities should also be observed to prove the dedication of a devotee to the cause. The Kavadi is of prime importance in this festival as each devotee is required to carry it all the way to the shrine. The journey kicks off from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and covering approximately 4.5 kilometers stretch, ends at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. On reaching the shrine, the devotees empty pots of milk on the trident of their deity. The ritual three day fasting marks the end of Thaipusam in Singapore.   AsiaRooms

Armed with a better sense of what we would be witnessing we got off the bus and headed into the temple. What I experienced there was nothing short of amazing.

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DSC_3444copyThe smell of Sandalwood swirled around us and the sounds of drums echoed throughout the temple. In each section, family groups were preparing for the procession. Along with the elements of the Kavadis, each area usually had an arrangement of fresh fruits, flowers, milk pots, incense, and musicians.

DSC_3401I would have felt like I was intruding if the temple had not been filled with spectators from every background. The Hindu families were extremely welcoming and happy to be sharing their customs with us. I tried to be inconspicuous but it was extremely busy inside. At one point, as his family was beginning to start their way on the procession, one of the drummers backed into me. I was extremely embarrassed to have gotten in the way but when he turned around, instead of him being upset, we both started apologizing to each other. His graciousness was humbling.

DSC_3492copyThe second stop of our tour was the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple where the devotees presented their offerings. Many of the men arrived physically and mentally exhausted and were only able to complete the final climb into the temple with the chanting encouragement from their families. Had I known what to say, I would have joined in to offer my support.

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I had expected to find the experience grotesque but, instead, I was moved by their faith and found the piercings to be less about bodily mutilation and more just the outward display of their devotion.  Alicia and I are planning on going back next year but on our own. I would like to have more time at the temple to watch the preparations and am even considering walking the 4.5 km route to the final temple as we saw many westerners do this year.

If you happen to be in Singapore next year during Thaipusam, you really should go to Little India and see it for yourself. It truly is an unforgettable experience.

***just a note: after some discussion with expats in other areas around Singapore and Malaysia, we've noticed some differences with the explanation we were given for the origins of the festival. If anyone is of the Hindu faith and can confirm the information or correct it, I would be gratefull. ***

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