Tag Archives: holidays

Thaipusam

Thaipusam is a Hindu holiday, this year celebrated 2-3 February. For an official explanation of this holiday, please read this Wikipedia article.  For my very limited understanding, please read on. This holiday celebrates the victory of Lord Murugan over the devil. Lord Murugan is glorified by the giant gold statue at the foot of Batu Caves. I feel pretty confident that what I’ve said so far is accurate. I feel less confident about the following because I don’t have a very in depth knowledge of the Hindu belief system, so I’m sure I will get some of the specifics wrong. My apologies in advance and I would welcome any corrections and opportunities to learn in the comments!

A devotee with his (rather large) milk pot offering.

A devotee with his (rather large) milk pot offering.

Devotees pray to Murugan for his help to overcome some obstacle in life. When Murugan helps you through this obstacle, you celebrate him and make an offering to him on Thaipusam. It reminds me of Catholics celebrating a particular Saint’s feast day, actually. (But I’m not Catholic, so what do I really know about that, either.)  Devotees cleanse themselves through prayer and fasting before making their offering. One traditional offering is a milk pot. You carry your milk pot (on your head) up the steps at Batu Caves- there are 272 steps so it is not a simple journey.  When you reach the temple at the top of the steps, a priest gives your offering to Murugan.  (And I guess you get your milk pot back?  I’m not sure.  I don’t remember seeing either a pile of milk pots or people carrying empty ones back down either.) The shrine ends up looking like a giant pool of milk. We saw people carrying small-ish containers that I assume hold between a half-gallon and a gallon and people carrying much larger containers. We also saw one family offer a pint of milk, still in the plastic bottle that you can buy at the corner store. I think the vehicle likely matters less than your intent.

If you want to make an even larger offering, you can build and carry a structure that I learned is called a kavadi, which means a physical burden. It might be relatively small, and you can carry it over your shoulders without much of a support crew. Or it might be several meters tall and require a shoulder rig and several people to help you. The kavadi were very elaborate and often brightly colored with flowers and peacock feathers.

The kavadi-bearers got to use the wide center stair.

The kavadi-bearers got to use the wide center stair.

You might also choose to pay tribute to Lord Murugan by practicing flesh mortification. I believe most of the kavadi bearers did this, but there were others not carrying a kavadi who practiced this as well. Maybe you will pierce your face with a large steel bar. Maybe you will pierce the skin on your chest or back with fish hooks and hang chains or other small objects from them. Maybe you will do something else. If you choose to go this route, a holy man will remove the piercings once you reach the top of the stairs. (There are also medics nearby should you need them.  The Wikipedia article says that no blood is shed either during the piercing or the removal.)

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I actually don’t know what this is, but someone was pushing it in a wagon and it was pretty cool looking.

This all sounds very dark but there was definitely a festive atmosphere. There were emcees leading chants and playing music, as well as perhaps offering narration or prayers- it wasn’t in English, so I’m not sure. The support crews for the kavadi-bearers often included people playing drums or other percussion instruments, singing and chanting. Many people carrying the kavadi danced while they waited their turn to ascend the steps.  The plazas at the base of the steps were also filled with food and drink vendors.

We chose to experience this holiday and festival as tourists. (We didn’t give an offering, but we did donate monetarily to the temple.) We did walk up the stairs in a giant crush of people, and back down again in the same giant crush of people. It took several hours, where as it might take one hour or so on a non-holiday. Someone asked me at the hotel afterwards if I had a good time. I don’t think this is really a “good time” kind of thing, but I appreciated witnessing the festival and having a cultural experience that I will likely never have the opportunity to experience again. What made the biggest impression on me was seeing the variety of ways that people chose to express their faith and devotion as they made offerings to Murugan.

In addition to the pictures included here, there are more on our Flickr page along with some more in-depth captions. Please be aware that many of those pictures include devotees practicing flesh mortification. There’s no blood or gore, but it might not be your cup of tea and I thought you should know that before you clicked on the link. (Not all of the pictures are of devotees and flesh mortification, but there are some.)

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Lion Dance Competition

Our weekend routine has evolved into low-key Saturdays, with whatever errands need to happen, and “an adventure” on Sundays.  Sometimes that means a trip to a museum or a park, sometimes it means we just go out and see what we can find.  Kuala Lumpur is getting ready for Chinese New Year, beginning 19 February.  We’ve seen different events at the malls, and we decided this past Sunday’s adventure would be to go to Chinatown to see what was going on there.  We didn’t expect a whole lot, since we are still over a week away from the actual beginning of the festival.  But there are so many great places to eat, and so many interesting places to walk around and people watch, you can never go wrong with planning to have lunch there and just winging the rest of the afternoon.

As it turns out, we were in the right place at the right time.  There was a Lion Dance competition outside of Central Market, or Pasar Seni.  Central Market was originally a food market, known in Southeast Asia as a wet market.  Now it has a lot of craft and clothing stores.  It primarily caters to tourists, I think, but they host a lot of cultural events as well.  (Maybe also for tourists, but still worth checking out!)  We caught the last three performances of the day, the competition had been going on for hours by the time we got there.

In my non-expat life, I coach figure skating.  So I am always interested in performance-based competitions.  There were acrobatics involved, synchronicity between the performers and the musician, and the overall style of making the movements look like a lion.  It was also pretty clear to me that there were certain elements that were required.  From the sample size of three that we saw, it looked like there was an obstacle the lion had to overcome and it looked like the lion had to eat something.  The last two groups also included blue plastic to represent water, I didn’t notice if the first group we saw included water or not.  Each group was responsible for setting up their own props to set the scene, so each performance was very different from the others.  This Wikipedia page gives some great history about the lion dance, but I couldn’t find anything describing how the competitions were judged (other than vague descriptions of “more difficult” acrobatics).

The “obstacles” seemed to include things for the lion to jump on and/or walk across.  The performers did some great acrobatic tricks.

According to the history on Wikipedia, the “eating something” element historically included some kind of greenery and had a red envelope with money in it to reward the performers.  The lion would “eat” the greenery and spit it back out, while the performer kept the envelope.  These performers didn’t have the red envelope, but the performances did include greenery and flowers to eat.  The final group used a large vase, apparently this is more difficult…although the lion didn’t really eat it, just moved it a little.

I had never seen a lion dance up close before.  It was really beautiful and a lot of fun.  I knew the performers controlled the lion’s eyes and mouth, but I never expected to be able to see different expressions on the lion’s face.  That was really impressive.

Just like youth competitions in the U.S., the groups stayed to watch the other performers.  Their families were also there to support them, and usually everyone from one group- performers and parents- wore the same t-shirts.  This was pretty similar to what I remember from my days competing.  It seemed like the performers, who were mostly teenagers, were responsible for setting up their own props and drums.  We saw very little adult intervention, except for helping clear the stage area at the end, which was probably more about expediting the process.  Surely there were adult coaches to do the choreography and manage practice, but it wasn’t clear to us, as observers, where they were.  That was really different from skating competitions where you can always find the coaches.  Micah and I both noticed that the judges had shirts that said something like “Malaysia Olympic Federation.”  Lion Dancing is not an Olympic sport that I am aware of, but how cool for the performers that the judges were clearly big wigs in the sporting world!

Here’s a clip of the final group we saw.  I liked them the best, but they didn’t get the highest scores out of the few that we saw.  They also didn’t place in the top 3, but we didn’t see any of those groups unfortunately.  The clip is also available on my YouTube page, here, in case the embedded clip has issues.