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A traditional kavadi donated by the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to the Indian Heritage Centre © Indian Heritage Centre

A Procession through the City: Festival of Thaipusam in Singapore

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.1For more details on annual arrangements for the Thaipusam Festival in Singapore, please visit the organizer’s website: www.thaipusam.sg

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,2Thaipusam is listed in Singapore’s first ICH inventory, which was launched in April 2018 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.3Kong, Lily. 2008. “Religious Processions: Urban Politics and Poetics.” TEMENOS, 41 (2), 225-249.

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.4Straits Times, The. 1932. “Thaipusam; Celebration of the Festival in Singapore.” The Straits Times, p.12. 23 January 1932. This year, the festival witnessed “10,000 Hindus walk in annual procession, cheered on by nearly 40,000 spectators.”5Charles, Raffaella Nathan. 2018. “Thousands Gather for Thaipusam Festivities.” The Straits Times, 1 February 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/thousands-gather-for-thaipusam-festivities.

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.6The Sri Sinivasa Perumal Temple was gazetted as a National Monument in 1978 and the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in 2014. For more information about National Monuments, please visit NHB’s one-stop heritage portal, www.roots.sg.

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.7Belle ,Carl Vadivella. 2017. Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival in the Tamil Diaspora. Singapore, ISEAS, 2017.

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.

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.8Zaccheus Melody. 2016. “Live music at Thaipusam after 42 years.” The Straits Times. 18 January 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/live-music-at-thaipusam-after-42-years.
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.

Conclusion

Over time, the Thaipusam festival has become an important signifier of Singapore Indian cultural identity.9Pieris, Anoma. 2009. Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society. University of Hawaii Press. 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.10Sinha, Vineeta. 2017. “Narrating Singapore’s Indian Community Working Through New Dynamics” in Singapore Indian Heritage. edited by Rajesh Rai and A Mani. Singapore: Indian Heritage Centre.

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.

Nalina Gopal, Curator, Indian Heritage Centre

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Notes   [ + ]

1. For more details on annual arrangements for the Thaipusam Festival in Singapore, please visit the organizer’s website: www.thaipusam.sg
2. Thaipusam is listed in Singapore’s first ICH inventory, which was launched in April 2018
3. Kong, Lily. 2008. “Religious Processions: Urban Politics and Poetics.” TEMENOS, 41 (2), 225-249.
4. Straits Times, The. 1932. “Thaipusam; Celebration of the Festival in Singapore.” The Straits Times, p.12. 23 January 1932.
5. Charles, Raffaella Nathan. 2018. “Thousands Gather for Thaipusam Festivities.” The Straits Times, 1 February 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/thousands-gather-for-thaipusam-festivities.
6. The Sri Sinivasa Perumal Temple was gazetted as a National Monument in 1978 and the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in 2014. For more information about National Monuments, please visit NHB’s one-stop heritage portal, www.roots.sg.
7. Belle ,Carl Vadivella. 2017. Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival in the Tamil Diaspora. Singapore, ISEAS, 2017.
8. Zaccheus Melody. 2016. “Live music at Thaipusam after 42 years.” The Straits Times. 18 January 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/live-music-at-thaipusam-after-42-years.
9. Pieris, Anoma. 2009. Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society. University of Hawaii Press.
10. Sinha, Vineeta. 2017. “Narrating Singapore’s Indian Community Working Through New Dynamics” in Singapore Indian Heritage. edited by Rajesh Rai and A Mani. Singapore: Indian Heritage Centre.