Destinations Malaysia

A Photo Story: Finding India in Penang at the Thaipusam Festival

January 26, 2016

For all my destination research and would-be intinerary daydreams, I know that the best travel experiences are often unplanned and unexpected. I didn’t know it when I booked my flight to Penang, but I’ve found myself in the right place at the right time, my stay here coinciding with several major festivals. This past weekend, Penang saw the celebration of the Hindu festival Thaipusam, an event I only knew about thanks to my lovely hostel. At the first mention of coconut throwing, I was sold.

Celebrated mostly by Tamil Indian populations, Thaipusam commemorates the Hindu god of war Murugan’s vanquishing of evil demons with the spear given to him by his mother Parvati. Malaysia hosts some the biggest Thaipusam celebrations in the world, it being the biggest Hindu festival of the year here. In Penang, the festival begins with a chariot procession from Georgetown’s Little India to the Waterfall Temple seven kilometers away. Devotees partake in coconut smashing sessions along the chariot’s route, an act that symbolizes both the breaking of one’s ego to reveal innner purity and the destruction of obstacles to forge a clearer path in hopes of good luck for the coming year. As bulldozers and individuals armed with big brooms clear the street after each big coconut smashing to make a path for the chariot, the procession takes about twelve hours.

The next day, the most serious of devotees fulfill their vows to bear burdens in thanks for prayers answered by Murugan through seemingly painful displays including piercing their tongues with skewers (called vets), bearing hooks pierced in rows down their backs and carrying heavy homemade frames sometimes attached to their bodies with spikes. These frames are the most demanding of devotees’ kavadi, which translates to “sacrifice with every step.” While these acts seem excruciating — we watched one man strain forward while one of his supporters yanked back with all his strength the ropes attached to the hooks in his back, pulling his skin away from his body in fleshy triangles as blood dripped down — they are said to cause the devotees to enter crazed trances that dull the pain. While I didn’t climb the 500 steps to witness the temple rituals (having accidentally left my robe to cover my shoulders back at the hostel), one friend reported seeing a man faint as the hooks were pulled out of his skin. Despite all of this apparent suffering, Thaipusam is at its core a festive celebration of gratitude, the culmination of weeks of spiritual preparation and abstinence by devotees.

Here, through my coconut water-splashed camera lens, is what I saw of Thaipusam here in Penang.






























Notes for Visiting

While Malaysia’s biggest Thaipusam celebrations take place at the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur, Penang is also known as one of the contry’s most popular destinations for the festival. It takes place in either late January or early February, when the star Pusam reaches its highest point during the month of Thai. In Penang, the festival starts in Georgetown’s Little India and culminates at the Waterfall Temple. Be sure to keep an eye out for the delicious free vegetarian food and drinks on offer during the festival — even as foreigners, we were welcomed and encouraged to accept these goodies! If you plan on partaking in any of the festival celebrations at the temple, remember to dress appropriately with knees and shoulders covered.


Penang's Thaipusam celebration, Malaysia's biggest Hindu festival

This post is sponsored by the amazing Georgetown hostel House of Journey. While I’m doing some work in exchange for accomodation here (an opportunity available to all guests at House of Journey), all opinions are strictly my own — I loved it so much when I arrived that I decided to stick around for a few weeks! If you’re looking for a hostel in Georgetown, I highly recommend House of Journey. You can make a booking through Hostelworld..

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  • Reply Maddy January 26, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    This is INCREDIBLE. How lucky that your trip coincided with this festival. I am so interested in everything Indian and Hindu, so I loved reading this post. Some of the rituals you described made me cringe from imagining the pain, but so interesting nevertheless! I can’t imagine how cool this experience was for you.

    And of course, amazing photos, as always!
    Maddy recently posted…The ARIA Hotel Prague: ReviewMy Profile

    • Reply Katie January 27, 2016 at 1:04 am

      Thanks, Maddy! I was so excited to be here for this festival. I did a lot of work and study in India throughout college, so finding parts of that culture here in Malaysia has been really special. I never would have guessed that Thaipusam was this big here outside of India!

  • Reply Amy | Toothbrush Travels January 31, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    You can’t fault their devotion but for them to go through so much pain for the beliefs breaks my heart.
    Beautiful photos! Really captured the culture and colour of the festival xo
    Amy | Toothbrush Travels recently posted…Packing For The SlopesMy Profile

    • Reply Katie February 1, 2016 at 2:32 am

      Thanks, Amy! I loved how colorful the festival was, but seeing some of the piercings and imagining that pain was kind of unnerving.

  • Reply Photo of the Week 242: Khao Yai National Park • Alex in Wanderland February 2, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    […] I Love This Blog: Katie’s timing is almost clairvoyant. She just posted an amazing travelogue from Penang — just as I’m considering booking a […]

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