Lord Skanda-Murugan

Synopsis: "Pan-Hindu Pilgrimage Traditions, Batu Caves and Murukan Worship"

Carl Vadivella Belle, Post Graduate Student, Deakin University

Within the generic Hindu tradition, pilgrimage is known as tirtha-yatra; that is, a journey (yatra) to a ford or crossing place (tirtha). While some tirtha-s many actually consist of river crossings, the term may be more literally interpreted to incorporate any recognized pilgrimage centre, any one of a broad range of liminal median locations in which the boundary between human and divine worlds is both permeable and negotiable. In a general sense, then, a pilgrimage many be viewed as a journey to a destination ("crossing place") where deities normally transcendent are both imminent and accessible.

A pilgrimage centre may be conceptualized as an axis mundi, a central pivot of the cosmos which is outside mundane space and time, even though it is a visible site on earth as well. The shrine is idealized as a ritually ordered universe and is demarcated from the chaos and sorrow of the kaliyuga (current age), by a succession of clearly stipulated boundaries. The gatekeeper marks the point of transition from the outside world to the otherworldly shrine. The heart of the shrine is suffused with sacred power which forms a dense and patterned representation of ritual symbolism.

Tamil purana-s consistently localize mythic action, so that pilgrimage sites are firmly linked to a particular phase of a given deity's history. Despite the multiplicity of pilgrimage sites in South India, each shrine is viewed as the centre of the universe, the one place that is directly connected to the other worlds. Just as localization establishes a nexus between place and mythic action, so it determines and prescribes the forms of ritual worship considered appropriate at each specific pilgrimage centre.

The journey from the periphery, from the mundane world of the kaliyuga, to the centre, the axis mundi, where direct communication can be made with the imminent deity, is an integral defining aspect of pilgrimage. The journey is initiated when the aspirant commences a set of purificatory rituals which place him/her outside mundane societal routines, and culminates with the direct and personal approach made by the pilgrim to the deity.

This paper will explore these concepts and their observance within the context of the Murukan festival of Tai Pucam as it is commemorated at Batu Caves, Malaysia. The paper will trace the development of Batu Caves as a recognized Malaysian Hindu pilgrimage destination, dedicated to the deity Murukan, and document its enduring association with Tai Pucam. It will demonstrate that although both pilgrimage traditions and the festival of Tai Pucam in the mythology and ritual celebrated at Palani, Tamil Nadu, the processes of adaptation have endowed the observances with attributes and an orientation which are distinctly Malaysian.

This paper will argue that the mythology of Murukan and Tai Pucam cumulatively prescribe ritualized patterns of worship which at Batu Caves find central expression in the bearing of kavati-s. It will further contend that kavati worship constitutes an act of pilgrimage which clearly embraces all the major elements which comprise the pan-Hindu tirtha-yatra paradigm. The paper will conclude that while kavati worship provides layers of meaning to Malaysian Hindus, its adaptation at Batu Caves signals a diversity of allegiances, including a broader identification with an imagined wider and enduring world of pan-Hindu civilization.

See also the author's article "Tai Pucam in Malaysia: An Incipient Hindu Unity".