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Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
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Thaipusam: The Tamil Festival of Hindu Devotion

Picture of Sam Bedford
Updated: 21 March 2018
Every year in the Tamil month of Thai, starting in January and ending in February, millions of Tamils around the globe celebrate Thaipusam. On the day of the full moon, some Hindus pierce their skin as a sign of sacrifice in exchange for answered prayers or forgiveness from Lord Murugan.

What is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam is a South Indian Tamil religious celebration where Hindus offer thanksgiving to Lord Subramaniam, often referred to as Lord Murugan. Lord Murugan, son of Shiva and the Hindu God of War, gets showered with gifts, prayers and personal sacrifice in exchange to remove the body of bad traits. Devotees dress in orange and yellow, the colours associated with the deity, and pitchers of milk as an offering are often carried on people’s heads. The world’s largest Thaipusam festival takes place in Kuala Lumpur at Batu Caves, attracting over one million worshippers and tens of thousands of tourists.

A festival that attracts over one million devotees and tourists each year | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
A festival that attracts over one million devotees and tourists each year | © Culture Trip
A Hindu devotee carrying a pot of milk with her tougue pierced | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
A Hindu devotee carrying a pot of milk with her tongue pierced | © Culture Trip
Yellow and orange symbolises the colours of Lord Murugan | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Yellow and orange symbolise the colours of Lord Murugan | © Culture Trip

Thaipusam sacrifices and religious ceremonies

The most striking part of Thaipusam festival relates to the suffering people put themselves through for Lord Murugan’s blessings. Some fast or just carry pots of milk, while others pierce their skin or carry Kavadi, or burden. The Thaipusam festival begins early in the morning before sunrise. Prayers are made to Lord Murugan to ask for forgiveness, recovery from an illness or even to help a couple conceive a child. In return, the devotee will make a sacrifice. Those taking part in the more extreme Kavadi follow a special diet and refrain from sex and pleasurable activities for a period of time before the event itself.

Devotees will carry their milk pots heading up the steps of Batu Caves | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Devotees will carry their milk pots heading up the steps of Batu Caves | © Culture Trip
Hindu families with young children also participate by carrying their pots of milk | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Hindu families with young children also participate by carrying their pots of milk | © Culture Trip
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While others had their flesh hooked or pierced | © Culture Trip

Carrying the Thaipusam Kavadi

From having needles pressed through the tongue and cheeks to carrying large objects attached to the body by skewers, the people who participate in carrying Kavadi are highly respected and honoured. Tongue and cheek piercing symbolise the sacrifice of giving up speech and talking. Those with the large Kavadi, of which some can weigh up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds), experience extreme suffering. Before the pilgrimage, a series of drums and chants drive the devotees into a trance-like state before piercing. Some say they don’t feel any discomfort. Others claim the punishing pain purifies their soul and rids their body of sin. Either way, the Tamil worshippers go to great lengths to honour Lord Murugan.

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Kavadi bearers are highly respected and honoured during the festival | © Culture Trip

Thaipusam in Malaysia

Starting at around 5:00am and lasting until late at night, the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia is an epic and once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. Tens of thousands of tourists attend the somewhat chaotic event filled with colour, music, drums and chanting. Many say Malaysia’s Thaipusam festival resembles a carnival with gold and silver chariots passing through the streets along with endless streams of devotees. The Tamils climb the 272 steps at Batu Caves before the piercings and kavadi are finally removed. As a tourist, expect to watch as the people performing various types of sacrifice climb up the steep steps to pay pilgrimage and honour the Lord Murugan deity.

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Crowds ascending the 272 steps in Batu Caves | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
The festival starts as early as 5AM and will go on until night time | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
The festival starts as early as 5am and will go on until night time | © Culture Trip
More devotees are seen carrying their pots of milk while ascending the steps | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
More devotees are seen carrying their pots of milk while ascending the steps | © Culture Trip

How to experience Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia

Given that more than one million people attend the Thaipusam festival, Batu Caves get overwhelmingly busy and crowded. Expect accommodation to fill up weeks in advance. Public transport to and from the caves will be bursting with people. It’s advisable to arrive at Batu Caves early. The fastest way is to take the Commuter Train (KTM) to Batu Caves from KL Sentral. After arriving, expect hot and sticky conditions and remember to stay hydrated. Tourists should also keep their distance from the procession to avoid interfering with the devotees, especially those with bulky and heavy kavadi attached to their skin. Persevere and tolerate the conditions of Thaipusam festival and be rewarded with a cultural experience unlike no other in Malaysia.

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Devotees shave their head during the festival | © Culture Trip
It may not be for the fainthearted but it's a once in lifetime cultural experience in Malaysia | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
It may not be for the fainthearted but it’s a once in lifetime cultural experience in Malaysia | © Culture Trip
A Kavadi bearer accompanied by drums and music | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
A Kavadi bearer accompanied by drums and music | © Culture Trip
A large Kavadi can weigh up to 30 kilograms | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
A large Kavadi can weigh up to 30 kilograms | © Culture Trip
You'll see a lot of devotees having their skin hooked and pierced throughout the festival | Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
You’ll see a lot of devotees having their skin hooked and pierced throughout the festival | © Culture Trip