Like many religious festivals, which include painful penance, Thaipusam, Thaipoosam, or Thaipooyam is a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil and Malayali community on the full moon in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’, usually coinciding with Pushya Nakshatra in the Cancer constellation, which is called Poosam in Tamil and Pooyam in Malayalam. It is obvious that the word Thaipusam is the amalgamation of the name of the month, Thai and the name of a star, Poosam.
During the festival, held in January/February, that particular star reaches its highest point. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave a Vel (spear) to his son, Murugan (Karthikeya), to kill the demon Soorapadman with it. Apart from India, the festival is observed in countries where there is a significant presence of the Tamil community, like Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Mauritius.
As in India, Thaipusam is enthusiastically celebrated every year by the Tamil community of Malaysia, when thousands of devotees gather at various temples to offer their respect to the deity. However, the celebrations take place on a grand scale at the temple of Sri Subramaniyam Swamy (Karthikeya), located in Batu Caves, just outside of Kuala Lumpur. Devotees prepare themselves for the occasion by sanctifying their bodies and souls through fasting and abstinence from all kinds of sexual activities.
Before fasting, usually they also observe a vegetarian diet for a week or so. The long wait ends on the night before Thaipusam, when they start from the Sri Mahamariaman Temple along Jalan Tun HS Lee at around midnight on a 15 kilometre long stretch on foot towards the Batu Caves and reach the cave in the next morning.
The long trip culminates after negotiating the 272 steps to reach the entrance of the cave. As a part of penance, some devotees carry ‘Kavadis’, which are heavy ornate structures made of steel rods and plywood, all the way up to the temple.
However, the most horrible part of Thaipusam is the way the devotees pay penance to Lord Murugan. They painfully pierce their body, including the tongue and the cheeks, with pins and spikes, hang heavy colourful pots and fruits from the hooks pierced in their chests, even pull large wagons or Kavadis with ropes attached to their bloody backs, while some hang with multiple hooks pierced in their backs.