When Tim was looking at apartments one morning with our real estate broker, Helen, they drove through Little India and she told him that the Thaipusam festival would be starting soon and we should definitely put it on our list to check out. She said Little India would be lit up, decorated, and packed with people. So on our calendar it went and this past Tuesday we took the bus to Little India to see what the festival held for us.
First stop: dinner, of course! We went to the Tekka Food Centre on Bukit Timah Road, a hawker centre filled with mostly Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
We always try and sample as much food as possible (duh) in every situation. First we had Chicken Briyani with Egg and Onion Prata from Alloudin’s Briyani. This hawker stall is flanked with press/media mentions and certainly lived up to the hype. The biryani was delicious. Moist chicken on the bone surrounded by turmeric curry rice with vegetables mixed in. All drizzled with a very spicy yogurt sauce. The part was like a crepe almost. Egg, onion, flour all mixed together and grilled up. Fab!! I had to stop for some palak paneer (my fave) at a stall with a very chatty spokesperson who really reeled us in. It was called Shan-E-Punjab and we got palak paneer and garlic chili naan. I was in heaven. Why is Indian food always so delicious?!
The Tekka Food Centre was packed with people. Most were dressed up in yellow garments and if they weren’t wearing yellow, they were in elaborate saris, very colorful and decorated with so much detail. It was really beautiful.
After dinner we started walking towards Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple where we knew the festival had started. Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February). It is a national holiday in many Southeast Asian countries and a celebration in honor of Lord Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan, who represents virtue, youth, and power, and is the destroyer of evil. Devotees seek blessings and fulfill their vows by carrying milk pots as offerings or kavadis 4 kilometers through a slew of temple stops where they continue to pray and make more offerings.
A kavadi is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from Murugan. Often, the kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders to the temple. A more simpler offering is carrying a pot of milk. The festival is also marked by lots of devotees piercing the skin, tongue, and cheeks with vel skewers. I read that piercing the tongue and becoming speechless for the procession is a way of showing their focus on their prayer and attention to Murugan. A lot of the kavadi bearers had morale teams around them, a few friends helping to hold them up and lead them down the road. A lot of people were in trance-like states and hopping around or yelling out as they made their way. They have spent the whole month preparing for the festival by abstaining from alcohol and sex, and only eating one vegetarian meal a day. The day of, they fast completely and spend many hours in the temple amidst heavy incense and chanting.
It was really special to be able to watch the Thaipusam procession make its way down Serangoon Road from Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple. There were an estimated 40,000 attendees at the festival with 250 kavadi bearers and 10,000 holding milk pots! The temple was packed – literally jam-packed with people chanting and pushing to start their procession. As they walked down the road, it was even more interesting to see those attendees that were in trances or having immense experiences. It almost felt like we were intruding on their experience. Isn’t religion so fascinating?! That people can go into legit highs as though they took some type of substance or drug… It is so powerful and, I think, easy for the Western world (or maybe NYC specifically) to get so caught up in their own rush that they are too far removed from these communities and experiences to even understand the power behind them. Does that make sense? What a ramble, but it is just so COOL.