A flash of colour and flame lit up the centre of Penang. After a prolonged pandemic silence, the spirit of celebration was reignited in the Malaysian island’s Tamil community with the return of two traditional Hindu ceremonies.
Today more than 2 million Tamils are estimated to live in Malaysia. They take pride in celebrating a pair of annual religious events with enthusiasm unmatched anywhere outside India.
Thaipusam, celebrated in late January or early February depending on the lunar calendar, involves devotees giving thanks to the Hindu god Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva.
The Thaipusam ceremony involves piercing skin, tongues and cheeks with hundreds of hooks and vel skewers, a form of ancient Tamil spear. Adherents also participate in a long, barefoot pilgrimage carrying kavadi, or burdens, which can include containers of milk or heavy pieces of wood and metal or performing acts such as shaving their heads and holding fire pots during the walk.
In Malaysia, the celebrations take place in Kuala Lumpur’s Batu caves, Penang and Ipoh, where thousands of worshippers and spectators gather around temples and along the pilgrimage paths.
A second primary celebration for Tamils is Thimithi. Held on weekends in late May or early June, Thimithi rituals involve walking over burning charcoal paths of 6 to 10 metres (19 to 32 feet). A cooling milk bath for the feet follows each walk.
Devotees conduct other practices including eating spoiled rice, carrying earthen pots filled with burning firewood and moving around a temple by foot, on their knees or by rolling on the ground.
The Thimithi ritual is seen as a test of faith, purity, sincerity, honour and strength and is currently incorporated as part of the annual celebration of the Tamil goddesses Kaliamman and Mariamman. There are no rules about individual actions during the ceremony. The most important value is pureness of intention, which shall be reciprocated in blessings by the goddesses.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, tourists and photographers arrived from around the globe to witness the unique events. For the past two years, the celebrations were discontinued, cutting off a form of worship for Tamil congregations.
The first ceremony in Malaysia restarting the traditions took place in June at the Mutthalamman temple in Penang. Combining fire walking with a ‘mini-Thaipusam’ offering, those present witnessed extraordinary rituals accompanied by traditional bands.
Photographer and journalist Philippe Durant was on site at Penang’s Mutthalamman and Sri Ambakarthur Patrakaliamman temples to capture the spark of the newly reintroduced festivities.
Introduction by Amanda Oon
The first ceremony in Malaysia restarting the traditions took place in June at the Mutthalamman temple in Penang. Combining fire walking with a “mini-Thaipusam” offering, those present the opportunity to witness extraordinary rituals accompanied by traditional bands.
For the first day, devotees were blessed by the pujari, a Hindu priest, before walking to the temple. One at the time, worshippers walked on the fire as a sacrifice for the Gods. “We have been waiting for this moment for over two years. Finally, we can celebrate our gods,” said Murali Dharan, a member of the local Annai Drew Mutthalamman Community.
On the second evening, worshipers of Lord Murugan purified themselves by bathing before allowing their bodies to be pierced with hundreds of hooks. They walked towards the temple with another adherent pulling strings attached to some of the piercings.
The main temple in Penang island, Sri Ambakarthur Patrakaliamman, was a venue for the annual fire walk later that week.
Before the firewalking, The Sakthi Karagam, the priest leading the ceremony, slaughtered a goat. While celebrations took place, the blood of the animal was cooked with rice. At midnight, another ritual started whereby the priest, possessed by the goddess, carried the cooked rice and ran to the nearby river. After losing conscience and power, he was carried back to the temple by followers.