Thai Poosam festival is a Hindu festival that is celebrated in India. It is dedicated to the Hindu god, Muruga, son of the Hindu deities, Shiva and Parvati. Muruga is the patron god of Tamils, and hence he has a large following in Tamil Nadu. The festival is also celebrated in countries that have a large Tamil diaspora. They include Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Africa, etc. Kerala, Tamil Nadu’s neighboring state, too, celebrates the festival.
Thai Poosam day commemorates a particular incident, in which Goddess Parvati gifted Muruga a divine Vel or spear. He used the Vel to defeat the demon Soorapadman/Tarakasura and his army, and hence the festival, like many other Hindu festivals, symbolizes the destruction of evil by the forces of good. Muruga is also known as Skanda, Shanmugha, Arumugha, and Subramanya.
Thai Poosam in Malaysia:
In Malaysia, which is home to many Tamils, Thai Poosam is celebrated with great fervor. Millions of Hindus visit temples to celebrate Thai Poosam. The festival date is based on the full moon day in Thai month (January-February). There are grand celebrations at the Batu Caves (Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple), which lie outside Kuala Lumpur. Devotees also visit the Balathan¬dayuthapani Temple or Waterfall Hill Temple located in Penang., the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Ipoh (Perak), and the Sri Subramaniya Swamy Temple in Sungai Petani (Kedah).
For Hindus, Thai Poosam is the biggest festival after Deepavali. It is a day of thanksgiving and offering penance. Thai Poosam is a public holiday in many places in Malaysia. On this occasion, devotees cleanse their bodies by observing a fast and abstinence. They take a vegetarian diet for some days. Many begin doing penance some days before the festival by carrying the kavadi (a decorated structure with the image of several deities, including Murugan) on their shoulders. They also carry pots of milk on their heads.
Celebrations at Batu Caves:
The celebrations at Batu Caves are truly amazing. Annually, more than 10.000 tourists visit the caves on Thai Poosam day. On the previous night, Hindus assemble at the Sri Mahamariaman Temple along Chinatown/Petaling Street area. From there, they depart around midnight on a 15 km (roughly 8 hours) walk to the Batu Caves, which they reach the next morning. They have to climb a flight of 272 steps to reach the cave entrance. It can be very crowded and claustrophobic, with a lot of pushing and jostling.
On arriving at the Batu Caves on ThaiPusam day, one can see many people in a trance. Some will be carried by their relatives. The men and sometimes women too get a shave from one of the many barbers stationed there. So one can also see many people with shaved heads. One reason why Thai Poosam is so interesting is the manner in which devotees worship Murugan. Some ardent devotees pierce their tongue, skin, or cheeks with Vels or spears. Some are hung on multiple hooks. Others may have small hooks on their backs that have small decorations. The devotees may dance uncontrollably and wave their arms wildly. In some extreme cases, devotees are suspended in mid-air by hooks or pulled along by their relatives. Their entranced state supposedly enables them to endure the pain. Later, lemon juice and holy ash are used to treat the wounds to prevent scarring.
The devotees believe that Lord Muruga will ensure that they will not feel any pain. In India, people can even be seen pulling heavy objects with sharp hooks that are attached to their bodies. They believe that by subjecting themselves to such rituals, they can connect strongly with the deity and please him. Many go into a trance during the ritual. Devotees keep chanting. ‘vel vel shakti vel’.as the procession wends its way to the Murugan temple.
All, including locals and tourists, have access to the caves. Hindus offer prayers and thanksgiving at the numerous altars found there. The area near the Batu Caves has many stalls where food, drinks, and religious items are sold. A small children's amusement park is also found there.
A Unique, Cultural Experience:
Thai Poosam in Malaysia is the ultimate cultural experience. It is a very colorful festival held in a carnival-like atmosphere. People wear clothes in orange and yellow, the colors of Murugan, and make sacrifices to render thanksgiving for answered prayers, for favors, and forgiveness of sins, etc. Batu caves are believed to be the holiest Hindu site found outside India. It has a statue of Lord Murugan that is 38 ft tall, at the foot of the steps.
The festival ends in the shadow of the huge golden statue of Murugan, at the foot of the stairs that lead to the caves. After praying, devotees leave offerings for the deity, as monkeys seated on the limestone outcrops watch curiously.
The date of Thai Poosam changes each year according to the full moon.