Week 28: Thaipusam!

Febuary 6-12

On Wednesday I went to the district cross country competition along with 23 other students from our school (6 in each age/ gender group, Under 15 and Under 18). After a six kilometer run through a kampung (village), along a road, and through more kampungs, I won fifth place! This qualified me to go to the state competition a few weeks later. I was the first person from our school ever to advance to States.

Later that day, Amma drove Freya (from Germany, also living in Tapah), my host aunt Kanaga Periamma, and I to Penang for Thaipusam. Along with Deepavali and Ponggal, Thaipusam is one of the three most important Hindu festivals.

On the famous Penang Bridge during the sunset


After a lot of traffic and closed roads, we went to the street where Thaipusam occurs in Penang. Thaipusam is a Hindu festival honoring the god Murugan. The Batu Cave in Kuala Lumpur is one of the world’s most famous places for celebrating the holiday. Many AFS students went to Batu Caves for Thaipusam, but Amma told me that the festival is more pleasant in Penang, the second biggest Thaipusam venue in Malaysia.

The festival celebrates when the goddess Parvati gave Lord Murugan a vel spear to kill an evil demon. For Thaipusam, devotees walk to a temple bringing milk and other offerings for Lord Murugan, the god of war. Murugan embodies wisdom and the light of Shiva. People pray for Murugan and god’s grace to destroy bad traits and evil. Thaipusam is a festival of paying penance and giving thanks to Lord Murugan.

This street, between the two temples, was filled with so many people (but not nearly as many as Batu Cave) and was lined with booths giving out food, sponsored by companies and associations. Walking through this was amazing— multiple kilometers filled with extravagant colorful lit-up booths, loud music, people in beautiful traditional clothes, and impressive kavadi offerings.

Coconuts are smashed in the street in front of the chariot, symbolic of smashing the human ego.



To worship Lord Murugan, many devotees perform a sacrifice and offering known as kavadi, which means ‘burden.’ In order to thank Lord Murugan for granting their prayers, people carry milk to the Murugan temple. Some devotees place rods or hooks through their bodies. Many pierce their tongues or cheeks with vel skewers so they cannot speak and are reminded of their god.  Some hooks are attached to metal vessels containing milk. They carry extravagant kavadi, which are essentially decorative portable altars with lots of colors, best described as one-person religious carnival floats.
This all begins on the eve of Thaipusam. After devotees have been vegetarian and performed many prayers, priests lead prayers and the kavadi devotees enter a trance. They do not feel any pain as kavadi, and when the hooks are removed after prayers by priests, they do not leave scars. Wounds are disinfected with lime after being stuffed with ash, and when priests sprinkle milk on the devotees, they exit their trance.

Before prayers, people bathe in a river. Many devotees have their heads shaved and then smeared with turmeric paste.

A large entourage of kavadi, family members, and musicians walk between two temples along with the chariot for Lord Murugan. On the eve of Thaipusam, the chariot was brought from the first temple in Penang all the way to the hilltop temple pulled by devotees (but the chariot didn’t go up the stairs). This year was the premier of a new golden chariot, which cost millions of ringgit!

This lasted over more than one day, with lots of people staying all night.


The next day, the chariot procession will return to the first temple.

The silver chariot (second chariot)

Host uncle works for this company


Late in the night/ early in the morning, we went to a hotel to sleep for a few hours.

RM 500 is about 125 USD


Then, dressed in saris and Punjabi dresses, we went back to the Thaipusam festivities. Unsurprisingly, wearing traditional Indian clothing drew a lot of attention to us as foreigners, and we had to walk quickly to avoid the paprazzi. (Well, we didn’t have actual paparazzi, but people like to stop us orang putihs to take pictures, and especially so when we are in traditional clothing.)  I saw a lot of tourists during my time in Penang which felt pretty strange.

Hair shaved by devotees

These metal vessels all contain milk


Freya and I climbed a lot of steps to reach the hilltop temple. Walking up 512 steps in a sari proved to be a very challenging task (sort of reminded me of being in a potato sack race), but I somehow managed not to trip, and the temple was beautiful– so it was worth it!

The hooks in this devotee’s back are connected to ropes which other devotees pull back on

Prayers before the kavadi begin their migration to the temple

Amma and Freya drove back to Tapah, but I stayed in Penang for the rest of the weekend.

The entire street was lined with decorative booths which served free food and drinks. The company my host uncle  works for (Bosch) had a booth which we used as a meeting hub/ resting area. I helped serve juice which was a fun way to watch the procession go by. Later I walked around with my host cousin and saw more of the festivities.


We stayed late again this night and then went back to my host aunt and uncle’s home.

The next day, we caught up on sleep and later went to a mall.


We went to a huge aquarium store with all sorts of fish and other animals. They even sold snakehead fish, which are illegal in the US because people release them in the wild and they destroy ecosystems.

Later, we went to a food court for a lot of famous Penang food.


Saturday, the family took me to George Town where we visited Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples and then walked around and saw famous murals in the historical town.  The temples were gorgeous, and I also loved walking around George Town.

This was the Thai Buddhist temple:

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And this was the Burmese one:

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Later we walked around and saw the famous murals of Penang:

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I walked around a pretty Indian Muslim mosque which was very interesting to see, even though I couldn’t go inside since it was during prayer time.

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Later, we went to a huge mall and walked around for a bit.

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Sunday morning, I took the bus back to Tapah. The bus ride gave me three nice hours of winter weather, with the air conditioner on FREEZING and the effect of proving that one can indeed be unpleasantly cold in Malaysia.

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View from the bus… even the views from the highways in Malaysia are gorgeous enough to be tourist attractions!

That evening, Amma took me to Ipoh to visit a friend of hers in the hospital. First we stopped by a temple first where the priest did some prayers for Amma’s friend. Later we went to a Ponggal event where we heard a few speeches and watched Indian dancing.

And that’s the end of this eventful week!

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