Look up Thaipusam on Google Images and you will be greeted with pages upon pages of orange and yellow. You’ll see pictures of worshippers smiling unfazed while sporting multiple piercings and hooks, as well as spellbinding acts against a backdrop of flames and drums.
Even though Singapore is among the few places outside India to hold Thaipusam celebrations, not many of us know the festival beyond this imagery. But if you’re looking to get up close and personal with these multi-sensory, colourful spectacles in India, this is just the resource you need.
1. How Thaipusam is celebrated
“Thai” refers to the 10th month in the Tamil calendar, while “pusam” means “when the moon is at its brightest”. Together, this was the precise time when Lord Murugan, whom the festival is dedicated to, destroyed the demon. Known as the Hindu god of war and a dispenser of favours, he was also a leading poet in Madurai and was worshipped for the flourishing of the Tamil language.
It seems only right that such a formidable character should be celebrated with the grandeur of Thaipusam. In fact, the all-famous body modifications Thaipusam is associated with are performed in the name of self-sacrifice and gratitude for favours granted through the year.
During Thaipusam, you will witness physics-defying sights of men pulling gigantic structures made of bamboo, steel or wood. These structures are known as Kavadis—a metaphor for burden and devotion that weighs up to 30 kilograms and measures up to four metres in height. These are hooked onto the backs of worshippers who transport them very slowly in a reportedly “painless trance”.
Also not to be missed is the sight of women carrying pots of honey, flowers, milk and fruits on their heads as offerings, and devotees braving hot coal trenches at temples. Of course, everyone is donned in orange and yellow, said to be the favourite colours of Lord Murugan.
2. Where to celebrate Thaipusam 2019
The bustle of Thaipusam festivities is concentrated in Tamil Nadu, South India, during the months of January and February. This year (2019), it begins on 21 January. Across the state, worship takes place in all Murugan temples, but Palani is pretty much the “poster child” of hot spots.
During Thaipusam, thousands flock to this holy town and to Sri Dhandayuthapani temple, where a festival known as Brahmotsavam is held:
- 20 Jan 2019 (Sunday) – Thirukalyanam – Velli Rataham
- 21 Jan 2019 (Monday) – Thaipusam – Therottam (Chariot Car Festival)
- 22 Jan 2019 (Tuesday) – Thanga Guthirai Vahanam (Golden Horse)
- 23 Jan 2019 (Wednesday) – Periya Thanga Mayil Vahanam (Golden Peacock)
- 24 Jan 2019 (Thursday) – Theppotsavam (Float Festival)
Most visitors will fly into Madurai, which is 119 kilometres away from Palani, before reaching the latter by train, bus or taxi. From Palani, you can easily connect to Chennai, Bangalore, Salem and Coimbatore, which are also hotspots for Thaipusam festivals:
- Madurai – Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple
- Coimbatore – Linga Bhairavi Temple
- Vaikom – Udayanapuram Subramanya Temple
- Karamana – Satyavageeswara Temple
- Mylapore – Kapaleeswarar Temple
3. Making transport arrangements
There are few direct flights from Singapore to Madurai, as most schedules have a stopover in Chennai. But depending on your destination, the latter might just be a more convenient option. As of January 2019, return flights cost around S$500.
Since 2015, visitors are no longer allowed to apply for visas only upon arrival and have to apply for e-visas online at least four days prior to departure. As regulations change quite frequently and there are several scam sites out there, it’s best to do proper research before applying.
Also, a word of caution to travellers doing intercity transfers on road—traffic in India is notorious, and cars share the congested roads with everything from motorcycle-rickshaws to llamas. To avoid missing the Thaipusam festivities, we recommend allocating more days for travel.
4. Be a conscious and sensitive participant
As inviting as the vibrant festivities are, non-Hindu observers have to abide by festival etiquette to join in respectfully. You will have to be dressed modestly and in bright colours, as darker hues are deemed inauspicious. Cigarettes and alcohol are strictly prohibited.
Because the nature of Thaipusam rituals can be hair-raising, you should assess your comfort levels before participating. And when you do, try not to get in the way of the processions in a bid to score photo opportunities. These devotees have been fasting for 48 days—they have to be on their way and to concentrate!
5. Packing for your trip to India
Let’s face it—no one visits India without a personal pharmacy kit in their luggage. The cities, while lively, can be polluted. The weather can be unforgivingly warm. The naans and lassis by the street-side stalls, while enticing, can prove too much for the stomach at times.
To make the most of your first Thaipusam experience, you’ll have to stay in the pink of health throughout your trip. Put on your packing list charcoal pills, rehydration salts, painkillers and other go-to remedies for digestion or respiration ailments. Wet wipes and hand sanitizers will also be your best friends on the go, since public toilets in India aren’t known for their sanitation standards.
With the celebration dates fast approaching, we’d hurry to catch the more reasonable flight and hotel prices while we can. Besides, planning an India vacation that steers clear of the country’s more chaotic sides is no easy feat, and you’ll need all the time you can get.
And for the bases you can’t simply cover with planning—the ones we keep our fingers crossed for at airport transits and during unfortunate situations overseas—a trusty insurance policy will help. With Direct Asia’s Quote Builder, you can find out within seconds how much travel insurance for your Thaipusam trip will cost you, so you can get back to preparing for an adventure you can enjoy in peace.