Singapore as a secular, multi-cultural, and multi-religious city state has had processions as part of its socio-religious fabric since the nineteenth century. Thaipusam, observed in Singapore since the late nineteenth century/and early twentieth century, is one of the most vibrant and longest surviving festivals in Singapore’s history.
From a religious observance of significance to the diasporic Tamil community, the festival has grown to be an important and widely celebrated aspect of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage, a rare, uninterrupted, and surviving tradition since colonial times. It is also one of the most visible religious public activities and provides the greatest opportunity for contact with secular activities and religious practices of other faiths.
In fact, the religious procession has become an annual attraction for both locals and tourists, and it has been drawing huge audiences (both Indian and non-Indian) since the 1930s. This year, the festival witnessed “10,000 Hindus walk in annual procession, cheered on by nearly 40,000 spectators.”
Thaipusam: History, Tradition, and Change
The history of Thaipusam in Singapore is closely linked to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, which was established in 1859. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva. It was constructed by members of the Nattukottai Chettiars, a diasporic community of money lenders from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, South India.
One of the most public displays of devotion to Murugan popular among the Tamil community in Singapore and the Tamil diaspora worldwide is the festival of Thaipusam. The festival is a celebration of Parvati, the mother of Murugan, giving him the sakti vel (cosmic spear) and blessing him with victory in his battle against the demon Surapadman. It includes acts of devotion such as carrying the kavadi and pal kudam (milk pot) or body piercing.
Held annually in the Tamil month of Thai (January–February), the festival is a three-day celebration. On the eve of Thaipusam, the processional Murugan image, placed in a silver ter (chariot), is taken on a procession through the city to the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple, and then back to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in the evening.
This opening procession, known as Punar Pusam or Chetty Pusam, usually involves a predominant Chettiar gathering. A more magnificent procession takes place the following day and involves the participation of other Hindus and non-Hindus in a procession commencing at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road and ending around three kilometers away, at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple.
The devotee is regarded as emulating Itampan, who mythology credits with lifting two hills bestowed on the sage Agastya by Lord Shiva. Another popular belief is that the devotee is the processional vehicle and the kavadi, a representation of Murugan’s shrine. Bearing kavadis is undoubtedly one of the most dominant motifs of Thaipusam, and that which invariably receives the greatest attention.
During the procession, male devotees carry the kavadi, traditionally consisting of two semi-circular pieces of bent wood or steel attached to a horizontal structure. These devotees are typically accompanied by a group of supporters to urge them onward in their procession of penance.
A traditional kavadi donated by the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to the Indian Heritage Centre. Collection of the Indian Heritage Centre
In 2016, live music was permitted at three designated spots along the procession route as music was recognized as an integral aspect of the festival. In keeping with the changes in scale and festival practices, the Hindu Endowments Board also worked with government agencies on issues such as applying for police permits, setting up barricades along roads, ensuring sufficient security presence, and other tasks to ensure safe conduct of the procession.
Following the procession’s completion is a reception for the devotees at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. The final ritual of the Thaipusam festival is itampan puja, observed in the devotees’ homes, held up to a week after the day of procession, and concludes the strict penance and fast observed by the devotees in the days preceding the festival.
Over time, the Thaipusam festival has become an important signifier of Singapore Indian cultural identity. Today, the diaspora celebrates the festival to acknowledge their roots. It has also assumed an important role as a negotiation space between old and new diasporas and helped build solidarity across boundaries of class, caste, ethnicity, language, citizenship, and religion.
More importantly, the Thaipusam festival expresses Singapore’s multiculturalism and is a good example of the city state’s open policy regarding freedom of worship. It continues to retain authenticity in practice despite rapid urban development, and it has become a popular tourist attraction promoted by the Singapore Tourism Board as one of the Visit Singapore events.