What Is Thaipusam?

An Introduction to the Hindu Tamil Festival of Thaipusam

Thaipusam Kavadi
Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty Images

You may have seen images of Hindu devotees fearlessly piercing their faces or dragging sleds attached to their bodies with hooks, but exactly what is Thaipusam? Why do they pierce their bodies?

Thaipusam (sometimes also spelled as it is pronounced, "Thaipoosam") is a frenetic festival celebrated by Hindu Tamils to honor Lord Murgan — the Hindu god of war and a son of Shiva

Some sects argue that Thaipusam is for celebrating Lord Murugan's birthday, while others claim the birthday to be in May or June during the Vaikhasi month. Regardless, Thaipusam commemorates Lord Murugan's gift of a vel (spear) from his mother, Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love and fertility. Frenzied participants shout "vel! vel! vel!" above the drumming in the procession.

During Thaipusam, Lord Murugan is showered with gratitude and gifts of devotion for prayers answered. Not everyone pierces their bodies or bears painful kavadis (burdens), but the ones who do create quite a spectacle.

When Is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam falls on the day of the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai (has nothing to do with Thailand, of course).

Dates change from year to year because the festival is based on a lunar event, however, Thaipusam always takes place in either January or February.

  • 2013: January 27
  • 2014: January 17
  • 2015: February 3
  • 2016: January 24
  • 2017: February 9
  • 2018: January 31
  • 2019: January 21

What to Expect During Thaipusam?

Chanting and drumming fill the air as thousands of devotees form large, chaotic, noisy processions and march from temples to worship areas.

Thaipusam is most famous for the handful of worshipers who pierce their faces and bodies with swords, skewers, and hooks. Heavy, artistic shrines known as kavadis (burdens) are attached to volunteers with sharp skewers.

Sometimes the contraptions are so large that several men have to offer assistance. The kavadis are then carried through the crowd until finally removed for prayers at a designated place. Other worshipers carry pots of milk as offerings to Lord Murgan.

The worshipers who pierce their tongues, cheeks, and faces with sharp objects hardly bleed and report feeling very little pain! Many claim that their wounds heal nearly immediately and don't produce scars.

Before being pierced, devotees are worked into a trance-like state with chanting and drums. Once entranced, the crowd helps to take care of them and leads them through the procession. Tongues are often pierced and pinned as a symbolic gesture that the volunteer is giving up the ability to talk.

Much like other Hindu festivals, Thaipusam is a colorful, chaotic celebration, although, it certainly isn't as messy as Holi!

Where Is Thaipusam Celebrated?

You don't necessarily have to be in India to see a Thaipusam festival. The festival is celebrated in India, mostly in the south, but every year over a million devotees flock to the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. The golden statue of Lord Murugan standing just to the right of the caves is 140 feet tall — the tallest image of him in the world.

In Southeast Asia, the largest Thaipusam celebrations take place in Malaysia and Singapore. The Malaysian island of Penang is another easy place in to enjoy a slightly scaled down celebration of Thaipusam.

Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Fiji have made Thaipusam into a national holiday. Even some of the islands in the Caribbean get in on the action! You'll find celebrations pretty much anywhere that there is a sizable Hindu Tamil community.

For information about experiencing Thaipusam in the United States, contact the Shiva Murugan Temple in Concord, California. They organize a long procession and have kavadis available in exchange for donations.

Tip: If watching the Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, you'll need to arrive very early in the morning. Beat the heat of the day and start at sunrise for an authentic experience. Trains to the Batu Caves will be filled to capacity during the day.

Observing Thaipusam

If you want to join a Thaipusam celebration, plan well ahead; transportation and accommodation will be way busier than usual in places such as Kuala Lumpur. "Busy" is an understatement — expect chaos!

Unless you're participating in Thaipusam for more than just exciting social media material, stay out of the way! Don't interfere with worshipers to get better photos. If you had a heavy kavadi piercing your body in dozens of places, the last thing you need is to get bumped by a pushy tourist wielding a selfie stick.

Although Thaipusam can feel a bit like a sharp-object circus that spilled into the street, show respect for the religious significance of the festival. It's not a place to goof off or be disrespectful. Don't point at pierced people, aghast in horror. The volunteers are honored and revered at the event for their commitment, not treated as sideshow freaks.

Thaipusam isn't the only festival in Asia where worshipers pierce their faces with swords and skewers. The completely unrelated Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Thailand (part of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival) is another place to see people getting pierced in a frenzy!

Keep an eye on belongings when pushing through the massive throngs gathered in the streets.

Rituals During Thaipusam

  • Participants wear yellow and orange, colors significant to Lord Murugan.
  • Pitchers of milk are carried on the head as offerings.
  • The tongue and cheeks are pierced by two symbolic skewers to show that a pilgrim sacrifices the gift of speech. These same pilgrims often shave their heads and walk long distances to be there.
  • Devotees carry kavadis (burdens) that pierce or stab their bodies. Some pull heavy sleds attached to their bodies with hooks.
  • Before someone can wear a kavadi, they cleanse themselves for 48 days through celibacy, a special diet, and continuous prayer.
  • People at the Batu Caves climb the 272 steps to the shrine in the cave.