FMT LETTER: From Hanuratha Thamilselvan, via e-mail
The Batu Caves temple complex is one of the holiest places associated with Hindus in Malaysia. The biggest cave in the limestone hills houses a shrine dedicated to Lord Muruga, the general of the Devas and the son of Lord Shiva.
Lord Muruga’s worshippers gather at this site in the tens of thousands to celebrate Thaipusam, which fell on Jan 17, this year. The festival, which is now celebrated for a week, attracts nearly a million visitors, not only from Malaysia but also India, Singapore and other parts of the world.
The word ‘Guha’ in Sanskrit means cave and since Lord Muruga likes to live in caves, his name originates from the Sanskrit word. To obtain His divine blessings, one has to climb 272 steps which leads to Lord Muruga’s shrine.
The celebrations take on a devotional turn for three days, regarded the climax of Thaipusam, with chants of Vel-Vel, accompanying thousands of devotees carrying kavadis and milk pots in fulfilling their woes. Many also pay tribute to Lord Muruga by balding their heads.
Devotees belief that all forms of offerings performed on the day as fulfilling their vows for wishes granted and fulfilled by Lord Muruga. Thaipusam usually falls on the full moon day of the month of Thai, with the appearance of Pusam (star) in Malaysia.
Thaipusam is also observed at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple and the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple in Penang, Sri Dandayuthapani/Subramaniar Temples in Johor Baru, Ipoh, Sungai Petani and Kuala Selangor.
To show their devotion, devotees pierce their tongues with a small Vel, a six to eight inch metal projection with sharp ends, apart from carrying kavadis and milk pots.
However in Malaysia, over the last few years, the ways and means to fulfill woes had taken a very dramatic turn. Many resorted to outlandish ways to outdo each other, from walking on knives to piercing eight-foot Vels through their cheeks.
The situation spiraled out of control so much so kavadis were being decorated with popular English Premier League teams. The Malaysian Hindu Sangam, finally after years of silence, issued the dos and don’ts for kavadi bearers about 10 days before the mammoth gathering.
Although the Batu Caves Temple management committee initially disagreed with the views of the Malaysian Hindu Sangam, it later relented.
The temple committee argued that devotees should be allowed to fulfill their woes in whatever manner they wish but later backed down after it was pointed out that some of the acts to fulfill woes were tarnishing the image of the festival.
Most of these devotees enter into a trance during piercing mainly due to the excessive drumming and chanting. They claim that they experience no pain during piercing and even after the ritual.
According to Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, rituals are like blankets that veil the truth.
“They are nets to trap our intellect, forcing us to confine our consciousness to the superficial values of the manifest world. The thinking of a person who believes exclusively in ritual practices becomes confined to this little world.
“Subtle thoughts of the mind and tender feelings of heart become outward oriented. Such a person begins to believe that everything can be accomplished with the help of rituals.”
Hinduism gives leeway for its followers’ unlimited amount of belief and it was up to the wisdom of the followers to choose what he or she wants.
They can do what they want for Lord Muruga and they believe He is watching. Although He did not ask for it, the people are free to chose how they pay their vows based on their capability and aptitude.
While there are some who hold this view, there are many who belief that rituals play an important role in religion. This age-old debate in Hinduism will not end today nor would it end in the next few decades.
2014 the most memorable
Since the chariot walk started at 10pm on Wednesday, one could witness a drastic change in the way the festival is celebrated. The mega-carnival like atmosphere was more subdued with more emphasis on faith. Gone were the days where devotees made a mockery of the festival with ‘fancy kavadis’.
While there were some rotten apples amongst the thousands of kavadi bearers, there was a marked change in behaviour among devotees, be in Batu Caves or Penang temple. This year’s Thaipusam drew hundreds of thousands especially due to the long weekend break.
Back to the chariot walk which started at the Jalan Bandar Sri Mariamman temple. Devotees could witness changes, evident by the lack of groups of youths either walking or on motorbikes revving their engines all the way and creating havoc and causing discomfort to worshipers.
People from all walks of life were in the procession and the absence of troubling elements was definitely a refreshing experience. Throughout the walk, refreshments were served by people wanting to donate drinks and food to those taking part in the procession which arrived at 2pm on Thursday at the temple grounds.
On an average there were refreshments every 200 metres of the 12km walk and it was heartening to see dustbins placed for the convenience of the people. As the chariot passed, workers were on extra alert cleaning up the mess, within minutes.
Also, the Malaysian police, which had some 1,600 personnel on duty for this festival, made the people feel safe. “You cannot go 20 metres without bumping into a cop,” was a friend’s comment.
While the chariot reached the temple, the real festivites began with the kavadi processions which lasted 48-hours. There was rarely a break as the kavadis carried by devotees streamed until Saturday evening when the chariot carrying Lord Muruga left the Batu Caves temple for the Jalan Bandar temple.
The kavadis were orderly and were under the watchful eyes of volunteers from the Thaipusam special task force. These volunteers, dressed in light blue T-shirts were carrying placards, reminding devotees and office bearers on the dos and don’ts of the festival.
They certainly deserve kudos for raising awareness among Thaipusam goers on the right way to show devotion to Lord Muruga. They ensured the Thaipusam celebrations were free of contamination.
They were also quick in seizing vuvuzelas, air horns as well as masks, which breach the guidelines stipulated for this year’s Thaipusam.
As for cleanliness, it is hard to imagine cleaning up the mess left behind thousands of people in a jiffy. Although cleaners and garbage cans were easily available the massive amount of garbage thrown overflowed every few minutes.
A new innovative avenue should be found to keep the trash cans clear at all times. Overflowing garbage dumps was one of the few grouses aired this year by devotees.
Breaking of coconuts also saw a decline with devotees breaking fewer of the nut to show their devotion to Lord Muruga.
The National Volunteers Corps (Rela), the Red Crescent Society Malaysia, non-governmental organisations and other volunteer bodies all deserve special mention in making this grand festival a success. The temple management is also not forgotten as they had lived up to their task of hosting a successful Thaipusam.
This Thaipusam has certainly set a benchmark. While this writer was concentrated at Batu Caves, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all evidence that celebrations in other popular locations had also taken on a religious turn.
It is feverishly hoped that Thaipusam celebrations will continue to see good, positive changes for the sake of devotees and Hindus in general.