A popular festival of a Hindu deity's triumph over evil, Thaipusam is a colourful celebration that showcases the undying faith of the devout.
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Thaipusam is held each year on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai, somewhere between January and February. It is a festival commemorating the victory of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity, over a mythical demon and symbolises the triumph of truth over falsehood. Thaipusam is widely celebrated throughout Malaysia, which has a sizeable Tamil population, especially in Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and Perak.
Thaipusam in Malaysia is known for festivities and intensity. The celebrations focus around a pilgrimage to temples dedicated to Lord Murugan, which begins with a procession led by a chariot bearing the idol of the deity from a temple within the city to holy sites at the outskirts of the area. These holy sites are also dedicated to Lord Murugan, and are typically a network of temples and shrines built in the backdrop of natural beauty. Two main holy sites in Malaysia that have become the focal point of Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia are Batu Caves in Selangor, and Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple in Penang.
Starting in the early hours of the day, devotees follow the procession route that begins at the city, bearing offerings for the deity. These offerings are mainly containers of milk that are balanced on their heads or shoulders, although the festival is better known for the kavadi bearers. Kavadis are specially made wooden structures that are colourfully decorated. These kavadis are said to symbolise burdens, and are carried by devotees who have made vows to Lord Murugan to carry them in return for a boon.
Kavadis are also seen as a form of penance, and many devotees incorporate skewers and hooks to the structures, using these sharp points to attach the kavadi to their bodies. Kavadi bearers undergo mental and spiritual preparation, including a strict vegetarian diet several weeks before the festival, to cleanse their bodies and spirit. The bearers enter into a trance before carrying the kavadi, and are said to feel no pain from the multiple piercings that they endure during the festival. They dance as they proceed along their pilgrimage, accompanied by other devotees and encouraged by cheers of 'vel vel shakti vel', a reference to the mythical spear used by Lord Murugan to vanquish the demon.
At the end of their pilgrimage, devotees throng the various shirines and present their offerings at the temple and receive blessings from sadhus. The temples are packed during Thaipusam, with numbers exceeding over a million at Batu Caves in 2010, as devotees and visitors flock to experience this colourful event. Thaipusam finally comes to a close with the return of the chariot along the procession route accompanied by the smashing of coconuts by devotees as it passes through the streets of the city.