Culture & Religion

Toning Thaipusam Down for 2021: A Lone Chariot Walks

thaipusam celebrations
Image credit: YAP CHEE HONG | The Star.
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A holiday centred around mass togetherness presents a unique challenge during a pandemic. Here’s how Malaysia’s various communities are approaching Hinduism’s biggest celebration.

As one of the biggest religious festivals in all of Malaysia, Thaipusam is truly a spectacle to behold. Celebrated in late January or early February each year, depending on the Hindu calendar, thousands of devotees of the Hindu faith gather to perform ritualistic rites to mark the occasion.

In this pandemic-stricken era however, these practices of faith, endurance, and penance have to follow a new set of rules.

Since its first celebration in Malaya, now more than 150 years ago, Thaipusam has to be severely downsized or completely cancelled for the first time in anyone’s memory.

On Penang island, where the second-largest Thaipusam celebration in the country is held, devotees are implored to stay at home to perform prayers. Temple committees are to conduct prayers via live telecasting, but the public procession of the kavadi chariots, paal kudam (milk offering) bearing, and thaneer panthal (food distributions) have been sadly nixed in a bid to avoid cluster contact spreading.

Deputy Chief Minister II Professor Dr P Ramasamy, along with the Penang Hindu Endowment Board, the Unity Department, Health Department, Penang Security Council, and state police all reached an unanimous decision, acknowledging that the risks posed by the pandemic were too big to ignore.

Sri Subramaniam Temple batu caves celebration
Sri Subramaniam Temple | Image Credit: Taylor Simpson, Unsplash

At Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, the largest site for pilgrims outside of India to witness the religious procession, this year’s Kavadi Aattam has been toned down to a singular silver vel kavadi, with only 10 community members allowed to accompany the procession. This came after appeals and negotiations initiated by the Sri Maha Mariamman temple management. The annual pilgrimage to the Sri Subramaniam temple in Batu Caves will be monitored by state police and the National Unity Ministry to ensure adherence to all SOPs are in place.

In other states, precautions and accommodations to Thaipusam celebrations have been mixed.

Melaka’s state government has allowed Hindu civil employees to take a day of leave to enable time for prayers and celebration at home. Melaka Chief Minister’s community affairs secretary Datuk M.S. Mahadevan had announced the provision of unrecorded leave despite Melaka being among the states that do not observe Thaipusam as a public holiday.

On the other hand, Kedah’s state government announced the cancellation of the public holiday completely. Citing that the restriction of temple celebrations are to prevent mass gatherings, then using that as a pretext to cancel the holiday altogether, Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor quickly drew backlash from other parties, including the MIC deputy president M Saravanan and MCA vice-president Tan Teik Cheng.

The announcement was lambasted as wholly inconsiderate, as Thaipusam isn’t a mere cultural observation, but a significant celebration for religious purposes. With strict SOPs already in place, sound advice for devotees to perform prayers at home instead, and regional temples broadcasting ceremonies live on social media, cancelling the state-sanctioned day of observation for most important celebration of Malaysia’s less-recognised Hindu community is in ill taste.

batu caves murugan statue hindu celebration
Lord Murugan statue at Batu Caves | Image Credit: Izuddin Helmi, Unsplash

When speaking to a Tamil Hindu practitioner about this year’s Thaipusam plans, she expressed a sadness. Praying to Lord Murugan for strength and help to continue surviving in these continuously difficult times is especially poignant this year, and doing it from the confines of her tiny apartment home seems understandably lacking.

The National Security Council (NSC) has permitted only 24 Hindu temples nationwide to conduct Thaipusam prayers.

Thaipusam will be officially observed this year on January 28, 2021. To watch these ceremonies live, devotees are encouraged to visit We Love Batu Caves on Facebook and YouTube.

TEG Media wishes all Hindu practitioners a blessed and safe Thaipusam this year!

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