What signifies Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia? If you are in Klang Valley, it will be a trip to Batu Caves and climb up 272 steps all the way up to the caves with a kavadi. An image of Batu Caves in the 1950s. Image source: Astro Ulagam
A couple of days ago, we celebrated Thaipusam – a very important event for the Hindus in this part of the world. And considering a strict lockdown in place, it has recently attracted controversies although the merits of the controversies are quite questionable. It may redundant now but it will be good to ponder the events as we will be having the same incidents in the coming months or years.
Why Thaipusam Celebrated?
Before we even go into the recent controversies, let’s get the facts clear on why Thaipusam is celebrated.
The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam (Tamil word for Pushya).
This particular star is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan (aka Kartikeya) a Vel “spear” so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman and his brothers. It is also commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan’s birthday;
Some other sources suggest that Vaikhasi Vishakam, which falls in the Vaikhasi month (May/June), is Murugan’s birthday.
Personally, it is a day for us to go to Batu Caves (other famous temples if outside the Klang Valley) – either to walk with the golden chariot as it makes it’s way from the Jalan Bandar temple to Batu Caves or to carry kavadi to fulfil a certain vow that has been made earlier or simply visit Batu Caves for prayers and shopping. We had never celebrated Thaipusam at home.
Malaysia recorded the highest new cases yesterday with 5,725 cases and this is despite a strict lockdown in place. Somehow the new norm during a global pandemic is yet to be enforced effectively to bring the curve down. Image source: Malay Mail
No Thaipusam Holiday in Kedah
Interestingly the Thaipusam celebrations this year attracted a high number of controversies – something we need the last in a major pandemic. The obvious is the so-called cancellation of the Thaipusam holiday in Kedah:-
The Thaipusam “public holiday” in Kedah is an “event holiday” (cuti peristiwa) and not a gazetted holiday.
Mentri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor’s special officer (Indian Affairs) B.K. Kumaresan said the holiday would be “renewed” every year through a state exco meeting.
“It is not a gazetted holiday but one that is observed for a public event. Since the Thaipusam festival is not to be held due to the movement control order, the holiday is cancelled, ” said Kumaresan yesterday.
He gave the explanation when asked why the state was not giving the holiday for celebrants to pray at home for Thaipusam.
Sri Subramaniam Swami Devasthanam temple chairman Rajendran Periasamy urged the state to reconsider the decision as devotees would have vows and penance to fulfil on Thaipusam, albeit at home.
The temple in Sungai Petani is the focal point of Kedah’s Thaipusam celebrations since 1919, drawing more than 300,000 devotees every year.
“The rites will be performed at home. Even though the event is cancelled, it must go on unhindered,” he said.
Seriously I really do not know what the fuss is about.
Many years ago, the Federal Territory did not give any holidays for Thaipusam despite the proximity with the State of Selangor where Batu Caves is located. It is not a public holiday in some states like Perlis, Pahang, Terengganu even to this date. One had to take personal annual leave or simply “ponteng” from school. It is however understandable when you don’t see Indian school or office mates for the 3 days of Thaipusam and often no questions are asked.
Now in the case of the Kedah, it is not a standard State public holiday and it is subject to State declaration from year to year. In the last 3 years, the State Government had granted State holidays for Thaipusam and there have not been any major issues raised.
However for the year 2021, considering COVID19 pandemic and a strict lockdown in place, the State Government had decided to cancel the declaration public holidays for Thaipusam.
As much as the PAS led State Government has it’s shortcomings, their decision this is correct and is necessary to be taken even though it will make some people unhappy (temple committee who is expecting a large crowd and large donations?).
It is all about enforcing social distancing whilst ensure some limited SOP granted to keep the current COVID19 infections in check. And here’s lies the hole in the arguments by those who insist on a holiday for Thaipusam – that it is necessary for Hindus to celebrate it at home.
The most popular form of sacrifice is the carrying of the kavadi 27 which means “sacrifice at every step”.
It is the kavadi that identifies the festival of Thaipusam. Legend has it that Iduban, a devotee of Lord Subramaniam, carried an offering which so pleased him that he showered his people with good fortune. The burden carried by Iduban has passed down in the form of the kavadi.
Devotees carry the kavadis to ask for forgiveness, keep a vow or offer thanks to Lord Subramaniam.31 The symbolism of carrying the kavadi originates from a myth where the kavadi represents a mountain with Lord Subramaniam at its apex.
Sorry to say this but I don’t recall anyone (my friends or family members) celebrating Thaipusam at home.
It is not like other Hindu festivals like Tamil New Year, Thai Ponggal or Deepavali. It is at the most, at time of penance and it is best to be done in temples with a kavadi. So this argument of a holiday is required for celebration at home simply does not make any sense. Further, under the lockdown, it is not possible to congregate in a large crowd anyway so having a holiday just does not add any positive value.
There is a reason why the authorities wanted to curtail the yearly chariot procession for Thaipusam – just look at the crowd and I know personally that walking together with the chariot is the highlight for many Hindus celebrating Thaipusam. Image source: The Star
Open Defiance in Penang?
Whilst on one side, some quarters are not happy with the State Government cancelling a public holiday, another State Government is not happy with the temple committee for breaking the state orders.
Penang Deputy Chief Minister II P. Ramasamy has called on the authorities to take firm action against the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple committee for ignoring state orders and carrying out the Thaipusam silver chariot journey at 3 am today.
He accused the Chettiar temple committee of openly defying the state government, the Penang Hindu Endowment Board (PHEB) and various government agencies that forbade the annual chariot procession for Thaipusam this year due to the current Covid-19 lockdown.
“To date, the state government and the National Security Council have not given permission for the chariot procession in Penang,” Ramasamy said in a statement today condemning the temple committee for going ahead with the ceremony.
“This open defiance must be punished severely without fear or favour,” he added.
What is happening in Penang is nothing but a political tug of war between the State politicians and the Federal politicians and it is a wrong time to do this. Both seem to have valid excuses:-
1. If the State had decided and come up with an order that chariot procession should not take place due to the pandemic, then why the temple committee members are so defiant to have the procession? Why they had to bypass the State and get a Federal politician to get the necessary approval to go ahead with the chariot procession.
2. Since the National Security Council has agreed to allow the chariot procession to Batu Caves with strict SOP, why then it cannot be done the same with the chariot procession in Penang? Why did the State want to stop a chariot procession in their state when another chariot procession is allowed in another state? Doesn’t COVID19 SOP is the same in all states.
Some Final Thoughts
Since 2020, the world had turned upside down and everyone, no matter who you are, has to embrace the new norm. And in recent months, the number of COVID19 infections in the country had gone up substantially to a point, the frontlines may just give up and the pandemic may just run wild, killing thousands on daily basis.
Until the whole country get vaccinated and we can come back to the old norm to some extent, things will need to be done differently. And this includes celebrating religious events like Thaipusam. We in fact need fewer holidays to minimise the crowd in a public area – fewer interactions means fewer chances of cross infections.
And in the spirit of Thaipusam, we can too make the sacrifice that is required to fight a bigger war. I trust Lord Murugan will understand the situation in these trying times. I trust Lord Murugan won’t mind if there are fewer devotees and kavadis at the temple this year.