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  On the Crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story    (by Himanshu Bhatt)

On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
From the top of the green hill, the endless string of devotees dotting its way up the concrete steps seemed like a sacred procession of silence.

Carrying milk-pots of brass and silver, and harnessed in colourful kavadis, the worshippers inched their way to the great temple overhead with sweet hypnotic resolve. The children, the elders, even the disabled ones, scaled slowly with their ceremonial burdens, ascending with a mission to the call of the good Lord Muruga above.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
The magnificient Silver Chariot surrounded by a sea of devotees at Dato Keramat.

In the temple, Muruga - the protector of the innocent - stood august and majestic in the inner sanctum, arms akimbo. An endless flow of milk cascaded from his crown and down his polished ebony image amid an air wafting with chants, music and heavy sandalwood incense.

Here, in the famous temple atop a small hill in Penang's lush Waterfall suburbia, thousands of devotees end their journey on foot every year. After hours of trekking from the various temples in George Town, the pilgrims ascend the hill with a final inspired spurt of fulfilment and calmness, to release their loads in the holy place as a realisation of their vows.

Some 600,000 devotees and tourists converged at Waterfall last January to celebrate or watch the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The lengthy stretch of road leading to the area, shut completely to traffic, teemed with throngs of people who were fringed on both sides by two lines of pandals or temporary stalls that provided refreshments, vegetarian food and religious souvenirs.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
Resplendent and enchanting in the slow dusk, the Silver Chariot gleams before the backdrop of the imposing Meenakshi Sundaresvarar temple.

The Thaipusam tradition was brought to the Malay peninsula through the South Indian diaspora during the 19th century. Ironically, the festival has since evolved and grown so greatly in Malaysia and Singapore that it has now far outsized celebrations, mostly unheard of, even in India.

In fact the festivities in Penang have evolved to such an extent that they assimilate distinctly local characteristics that would raise eyebrows in India. For example, the celebrations have drawn a cosmopolitan following of many non-Indians. One group of Chinese devotees was seen pulling a small chariot of Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. Another group had actually prepared an ornate chariot replete with giant images of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Kali accompanied by the serene image of Kuan Yin.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
Smashing coconuts before the chariot of the Lord.

But in spite of the few inevitable socio-cultural oddities, Thaipusam is by and large inundated with Hindu rites and rituals.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
Hooks hang from a devotee's back, weighted down by lime.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
Hooks weighted down by nylon strings.

The festival is however popularly known more for the acts of self-immolation by devotees who skewer themselves with hooks and spears as penance. It is unfortunate that such exotic spectacles have prevented many visitors from being more exposed to the profound depths of angelic spirituality many devotees demonstrate.

The early morning of Thaipusam is arguably the finest time for visitors to experience the purist side of the festival. The calm and tranquil march of devotees bearing ceremonial milk-pots, coconuts and simple shoulder-kavadis in the balmy hours is an arresting sight.

Mostly clad in yellow and saffron, clean-shaven heads smeared with sandalwood paste, the devotees walk along the road sans the boisterousness that dominates the later hours of the day. The pilgrim procession passes a number of temples along the Waterfall road before the ascent up to the famous hilltop temple. The usually barren rain gutters along the hillside look like slender white capillaries, flowing down with ceremonial milk offered at the temple above. Further below, a whole river has turned into an amazing canal of milk.

The festivities traditionally end on the evening after Thaipusam day, when the impressive Silver Chariot bearing the image of Muruga, is slowly driven from the Sri Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple in Waterfall on a long overnight journey to the Natukottai Chettiar Temple in George Town.

The chariot had in fact been earlier brought to the waterfall temple the morning before Thaipusam, in what has become a customary beginning to the festivities.

It is interesting to note that the yearly chariot procession during Thaipusam has been held without fail since 1857. A wooden chariot was used for the first 37 years until the silver chariot was brought from India in 1894; this chariot has been used ever since.

The episode of drawing the chariot back from the Waterfall temple lends an engaging atmosphere of faith, devotion and piety. Hundreds of devotees flock peacefully around the gleaming chariot, carrying trays of offerings - flowers, fruits, betel-leaves, coconuts - amid undulating music of an Indian piper and his drummer.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
Some devotees, young and old, in the never-ending procession.

Little children are lifted up to the idol in the chariot for priests to invoke the deity's blessings; jasmine garlands passed along up to be placed on the idol; wisps of incense smoke, fragrance of rosewater; camera flashes and chants. All these amid a sea of devotion and equanimity.

As the chariot, pulled by bulls, slowly lunges forward, a frenzy of coconut smashing ensues before the sacred deity. Municipal council workers plunge into disciplined action, zooming a pair of bobcats and compactor units to clear the debris as the chariot moves on.

Afar and nigh ahead, the endless peaceful waves of devotees wait patiently to have their glimpses of the sacred idol of Muruga till the holy parade and the festival come again next year.
On the crest of Prayer - The Thaipusam Story
One of the many colourful stalls set up along Waterfall Road for Thaipusam.

* * * * * *
The webmasters of Kaumaram.com sincerely thank Mr. Himanshu Bhatt for his kind permission to reproduce
this article and pictures. Mr. Himanshu Bhatt is a journalist based in Penang, Malaysia.
Other articles in Kaumaram.com by the same writer:

     The Secret Perch of Muruga 
     Faith Across Cultures 

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