What Is Thaipusam?

An Introduction to Thaipusam, Kavadis, and the Piercing Ritual

Thaipusam Kavadi
••• A kavadi being carried by a devotee during Thaipusam in Singapore. Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty Images

Lots of people have seen images of devotees fearlessly piercing their faces or dragging sleds attached to bodies with hooks, but exactly what is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam is a widespread Hindu festival celebrating Lord Murgan, the Hindu god of war, a son of Shiva. Some argue that Thaipusam is for celebrating Lord Murugan's birthday, while others claim the birthday to be in May or June. They claim that Thaipusam is a day to celebrate Lord Murugan's gift of a spear from Parvati (his mother), the Hindu goddess of love and fertility.

Regardless of the festival's origin, Lord Murugan is showered with gratitude for prayers answered and gifts of devotion.

What to Expect During Thaipusam?

Shouts of vel! (spear) 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 skewers. They are then carried through the crowd until finally dropped for prayers at a designated place. Other worshipers carry pots of milk as offerings to Lord Murgan.

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

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.

Where Is Thaipusam Celebrated?

Don't assume that you have to be in India to see a Thaipusam festival!

The festival is celebrated in India, but every year over a million devotees flock to the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. The golden statue of Lord Murugan just to the right of the caves stands 140 feet tall, making it the tallest in the world.

In Southeast Asia, you'll find the largest Thaipusam celebrations 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 made Thaipusam into a national holiday. Even islands in the Caribbean get in on the action. You'll find celebrations pretty much anywhere that there is a sizable Hindu Tamil community.

A good place to experience Thaipusam in the United States is in Concord, California, where a walk and celebration are held every year.

Observing Thaipusam

If you want to experience a Thaipusam celebration, plan well ahead; transportation and accommodation will be booked solid in the area. "Busy" is an understatement — expect a madhouse.

Remember, unless you're participating in Thaipusam for more than just exciting social media fodder, don't interfere with worshipers or get in their way. If you had a heavy kavadi piercing your body in dozens of places, you wouldn't want to get bumped or delayed by someone with a selfie stick.

Although Thaipusam can feel a bit like culled chaos, show respect for the religious significance of the festival. It's not a place to goof off or be disrespectful. Keep an eye on belongings when pushing through the frenetic throngs gathered in the streets.

If watching Thaipusam 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.

Tip: 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!

Rituals During Thaipusam

  • People 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.
  • Devotees carry kavadis (burdens) that pierce or stab their bodies. Some pull heavy sleds attached to their bodies with hooks.
  • Before devotees carry kavadis, they cleanse themselves for 48 days through celibacy, a special diet, and prayer.
  • People at the Batu Caves climb the 272 steps to the shrine in the cave.

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 of the festival is based on a lunar event, however, Thaipusam always takes place in either January or February.

  • 2013: January 27 or 28
  • 2014: January 17
  • 2015: February 3 or 4
  • 2016: January 24
  • 2017: February 9
  • 2018: January 31
  • 2019: January 21