In Good Faith


as published in Virtual Malaysia Magazine [January / February 2006]

Reporting on three Indian festivals celebrated in Malaysia, Majidah Hashim finds herself mesmerised by the human demonstrations of faith.

I am constantly fascinated by stories of faith told to me by pilgrims, be it to the holy plains of Mecca, the enlightening ranges of Tibet or the sacred rivers of India. You really don’t get too many miracle stories being a city girl. Assigned to three Indian festivals to discover the lengths people would go to demonstrate their faith in the celestial, I travelled to visit Thai Ponggal, Thaipusam and Pangguni Utthiram celebrations.

Thai is the very important 10th month in the Tamil calendar (usually starts on January 14 or 15 on the Western calendar), as two very significant festivals are celebrated in this month. Thai Ponggal, (popularly called Ponggal, which literally means ‘boiling over’ or ‘overflow’ in Tamil), is really a harvest festival, where thanks and praise are given to the gods for the year’s bountiful harvest. It’s a four-day celebration, and festivities begin the day before the Thai month starts with the bhogi pandigai, where old things are burnt and houses are thoroughly cleansed to signify a renewal in the home.

The second day, the actual Ponggal day, is also called Suria Ponggal and it celebrates the harvest’s crops. Sugarcanes are placed outside homes, and in a new pot, milk is brought to a boil under firewood, and is greeted by chants of “Ponggalo Ponggal!” Then rice is added, along with ghee, rock sugar or brown sugar to produce a sweet rice dish, which signifies hopes for another bounteous year.

The third day is called Maattu Ponggal and it commemorates cattle for having toiled the earth for the season’s yield. Cows and bulls are gaily decked in garlands and fed an assortment of food and sweets. In villages in India, games and matches are held.

Kanni Ponggal the fourth and last day of the festival, is an auspicious day for young men to scout for potential brides. Young women in villages would cook rice in pots and young men would begin their courtship by sampling the rice. In the old days when young women were not allowed to socialise with young men, Kanni Ponggal offered them an opportunity to meet eligible men.

Another significant festival celebrated in the Thai month is Thaipusam, which falls on the full moon in the month. In Malaysia, it is best celebrated at the Batu Caves temple in Selangor, the Siva Subramaniam cave temple in Perak, and the Nattukottai Chettiar hill-top temple in Pulau Pinang.
On the eve of Thaipusam, a silver chariot bearing the statue of Lord Muruga starts in town and heads to these temples. The voyage of the chariot is symbolic of a king going out of his palace and seeing his subjects.

It is meant to allow the sick, the old, and the disabled who are unable to make the journey to the temple, to see and offer prayers to the deity. In Kuala Lumpur, an aircraft crane tugs the chariot, followed by anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 devotees. The Perak and Penang chariots are still, however, pulled along by cattle and people.

Thaipusam is often misunderstood as a sacrificial ceremony. In actuality, it is an event to give thanks for vows that have been fulfilled. To show gratitude, most devotees shave their heads during the occasion. A large number of them can also be seen carrying the paal kodum, or milk pots.

The most prominent feature of Thaipusam, however, is the kaavadi, and there are several types. The ones that attract the most attention are those that entail the piercing of small hooks through the flesh of the devotee. The most common of these ‘pierce kaavadis’ are the pushpa kaavadi (flower kavaadi) and the mayil kavaadi (peacock kavaadi). Both of these are big, usually fashioned onto a large metal frame bearing a statue of Lord Muruga and elaborately decorated. There are also kaavadis that don’t entail piercing, but subject the devotee to weight instead. These heavy kaavadis are carried on the shoulders. Chants of ‘vel, vel’ could be heard, signifying a call for strength from Lord Muruga.

Another kaavadi commonly seen during Thaipusam is the karumbu kaavadi or sugarcane kaavadi. This special kaavadi is carried by parents who have had their wishes for a child fulfilled. The child would be cradled in yellow cloth tied to three sugarcane sticks and shouldered on each end by the parents. In the Hindu custom, yellow represents religious purity and is often donned by Hindu monks and devotees.

The breaking of coconuts is also common during Thaipusam. Performed on a very grand scale in Penang, the breaking of coconuts signifies the breaking of one’s ego and is a symbolic demonstration of humility before God in the Hindu religion.

Although the pinnacle of Thaipusam is to fulfil their pledges on the day itself, devotees can perform vows up to three days prior to the event. Nonetheless, doing it on the day itself is a test of faith and is highly respected within the Hindu community.

Approximately two months after the month of Thai is the month of Pangguni. Performed with rituals similar to those during Thaipusam, Pangguni Utthiram is a festival of miracles. The Sri Marathandavar Temple, located in Maran, Pahang, is said to be among the most powerful Hindu temples in the country, if not the region.

Every year, fleets of buses are chartered to ferry devotees from all over the country to this temple. This is an annual ritual for many families and a tradition that is practiced for generations.

On my trip, I heard story after story of devotees who owe their miracles to the potency of the temple. From cures to life-threatening illnesses, life-changing second chances and business successes, I learnt that the temple attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees during this festival. Just after the stroke of midnight, the festivities see various kavadis being carried, as well as several other acts of devotion, such as the angapradesham, where devotees roll themselves on the ground around the temple.

What initially began as fear for the physical agony exposed during Indian festivals has turned into deep admiration, as I learnt more about the true nature of these celebrations. It takes patience and appreciation to understand why a Hindu goes through such lengths, or why a Muslim embarks on a month-long fast during Ramadhan or why the Chinese walk on hot coals for their deity. It’s all about faith and devotion. All religions test our faith in one way or another. But perhaps the greatest test of faith is to live with humility and respect, and in achieving such an aspiration, makes us walking demonstrations of faith.


2 Responses to “In Good Faith”

  1. 1 thaipusam: walking the mile of faith « the wysard
  2. 2 thaipusam: walking the mile of faith « wysard

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