Lord Skanda-Murugan

Tai Pucam in Malaysia: An Incipient Hindu Unity

Research paper by Carl Vadivella Belle
for presentation at the First Interntional Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan

See also "Following Murukan: Tai Pucam in Singapore"

Kavadi child, Sri Lanka

This paper explores some aspects of Tai Pucam as it is celebrated in Malaysia. In essence I will argue that Tai Pucam reflects a fragile concept of Malaysian Hindu solidarity within a multi-ethnic society. In the opening section I have explored ethnicity in Malaysia and the Indian experience of the politics of ethnicity. I have then traced the various strands of Malaysian Hinduism, and the complex reconfigurations which have occurred since World War II. Then follows a brief description of the mythology and structure of Tai Pucam at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, and of the kavati ritual which lies at its heart. In conclusion I have suggested that Tai Pucam provides layers of meaning for Malaysian Hindus, and signals a variety of allegiances, and that nearly all segments of Malaysian Hindu society attain representation at Tai Pucam under the overarching rubric of Murukan worship.

I should state from the outset that I have a strong personal commitment to both Tai Pucam and Murukan. My interest in Tai Pucam has lead to a series of pilgrimages to Batu Caves, Penang and Palani as a participant. My views, therefore, are shaped by two major influences - firstly my role as an "insider", albeit that of a Western pilgrim, and secondly, the spirit of scholarly inquiry. Tai Pucam, Murukan worship, and Hinduism in Malaysia are all topics of considerable complexity, and it is impossible to reduce the sprawling dimensions of these subjects any to manageable proportions without some simplifications and generalizations. These issues are the subject of postgraduate study and will be explored in greater detail in that work..

Malaysia: The Socio-Political Context

The politics of ethnicity, which dominates all facets of Malaysian life, was set in motion by the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula in 1941. Pre-war British colonialism had retained an illusory facade of harmony built upon a policy of compartmentalization, a deliberate division of labour, which allocated specific economic functions according to ethnicity (Hirschmann). Colonial power structures were destroyed by the Japanese occupiers who created intense and often violent rivalries (Cheah, Mahajani), which crystallized previously inchoate notions of ethnic identity. Indeed, it can be argued that the broad "racial" identities of Malay, Chinese and Indian, to which most Malaysians continue to offer allegiance, emerged during this period (Lee).

Post war Malaya was marked with bitter and violent ethnic cleavages (Cheah) and the rapid mobilization of an assertive Malay nationalism. This found practical expression in the 1957 Constitution which articulated the concept of 'Malayness' and enshrined the socio-political ascendency of Malays in newly independent Malaya (Nagata). Malays were no longer a mere communal group, one among several, but were now clearly defined as an indigenous and founding people, possessing a charter for nationhood, and guaranteed certain privileges and rights. The Constitution also established Islam as the official religion of Malaya, and consecrated Muslim rights.

Political struggles in Post Merdeka Malaysia have largely revolved around the search for inter ethnic accommodation and distribution of power and resources. This was initially conducted through the Alliance formula, a formalized system of power brokering and bargaining between communal parties (Amplavanar, 1981). While the Alliance was abandoned after the 1969 racial riots, and the subsequent introduction of economic and cultural policies in 1971 which underscored Malay and Islamic primacy (Kua), Malaysian politics has remained overtly communal. Ethnicity remains enstructured in Malaysian life, and all interactions are conducted and received through ethnic filters. Every aspect of ethnicity may therefore be construed as political.

The Indian experience in Malaysia reflects this backdrop. While there had been some Indian political activity prior to the Pacific War, pan Indian awareness was forged in the crucible of the Japanese occupation. A vigorous nationalism was fostered by the formation of the Japanese sponsored Indian Independence League and the Indian National Army (Ramachandra,Jessy). Colonial administration, structured upon dependency, simply evaporated, leaving many Indian workers, especially those on plantation estates, to fend for themselves. Despite the brutality and hardship of the era, the Indian nationalist struggles under Subhas Chandra Bose promoted pan-Indian pride as well as a high degree of political and cultural unity (Arasaratnam, 1971/72, p.1).

It is difficult to interpret the post-war history of the Indian community in Malaysia as anything other than that of a marginalized minority. Oppressed and largely ignored under pre-war British colonial rule, the fleeting and evanescent unity of war time nationalist politics attracted the distrust, acrimony and repression of the returning British (Stenson). For Indians, Malaysian independence has meant a cultural and socially marginal role between Malay political hegemony and Chinese economic domination. As the numerically smallest, and politically and economically weakest, of the three major ethnic groups, Indians have remained marginal to the process of inter-ethnic struggles. Indians are not in a position to influence outcomes, or even select the ground on which they occur. Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) membership of the multi-ethnic Alliance did not prevent the implementation of measures which disadvantaged the Indian communities. For example the MIC was unable to restrict the enactment of restrictive citizenship and immigration laws, or the fragmentation of a considerable number of rubber and other plantation estates, and the consequent dispossession, impoverishment and repatriation of many Indian workers (Stenson).

Kahn and Low (p. 3) argue that the ethnic blocs which dominate Malaysian politics hide the reality of what they term a "fragmented vision"; that is, the "...proliferation of discourses and /or cultural practices which are either implicitly or explicitly particularistic and which either replace or resist the imposition of universalistic value systems generally assumed to accompany "modernization".

Such is the case within the Indian community, both in political and religious spheres. Despite constant external pressures, deeper political unity has evaded the Indian and Hindu communities, which remain riven by regional and sub-regional loyalties, and issues of caste and class (Amplavanar, 1993). These factors have imposed severe constraints upon the efficacy of all Indian organizations, and have vitiated the effectiveness of the Indian political and religious leadership in the broader Malaysian sphere. Indian political and religious groupings remain brittle, divided and unstable (Muzaffar).

The construction of ethnicity, both socially and politically, extends to religion. Religious affiliation falls along ethnic fault lines, and has become intertwined with notions of self, and the signalling of wider group allegiances. Ackerman and Lee suggest that Malay political and cultural pre-eminence, and the concomitant refusal to accommodate any challenge to a set political agenda, coupled with the invention of Malay culture around a single system of adat (custom) and agreed Islamic symbols, has dichotomised the Malaysian religious arena into Muslim/non Muslim. This has invested all non-Muslim religions with increased significance as for a for the expression of ethnic values, as well as vehicles for experimentation and change and has channelled non-Malay ethnic sentiments into religious activities as convenient alternatives for ethnic political expression. It is notable that in recent years there have been revivals in all major religions as well as innovation, especially among "fringe" cults and movements.

Modern Hinduism In Malaysia - A Context

Hinduism has been re-created (Raghavan) as a significant minority religion in Malaysia by the waves of Indian migration which began in the wake of the British acquisition of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, Singapore) in the late 18th Century, intensified with the extension of British rule over the remainder of the Malay Peninsula, especially as a result of the expansion of plantation agriculture and the concomitant demand for cheap and compliant labour, and continued up until the eve of the Second World War (Sandhu).

Hindus in Malaysia can trace their origins to various migratory streams, each of which has made an enduring contribution to the overall fabric of Malaysian Hinduism

  1. The bulk of modern Indian migration has comprised indentured and assisted labourers, recruited to serve as an unskilled workforce either in the British plantation economy or within public utilities. Indentured labourers were largely drawn from the ranks of socially deprived "Madrasi" Hindus (mainly Tamils, but including Telugus and Malayalis) (Sandhu). They were generally of the lower castes. They arrived in large numbers between the mid 19th Century and 1910 when the indenture system, already under attack both in India and the United Kingdom, was abandoned in favour of Assisted Labour schemes which attempted to produce a more regulated and orderly labour flow (Parmer, Arasaratnam, 1970, p 15). Subsequent immigration was largely clan based, contained a higher proportion of women and families, and tended to be socially variegated, and thus more likely to include members of higher castes (Arasaratnam, 1970 p 26). These groups of Indians were responsible for transplanting Dravidian village Hinduism to Malaysia.
  2. The Chettiar (a Tamil merchant) caste. Although only a small number of Chettiars migrated to Malaysia they exercised a disproportionate influence in the commercial development of Malaya, and in the establishment of Agamic Hinduism. Nattukottai Chettiars, who worship Murukan as a clan ista deva, built and maintained many Murukan temples in Malaysia and Singapore, imported Brahmin kurrukals and Brahmin orthodoxy, advised on the proper practices associated with Murukan worship and the conduct of Murukan festivals, and have underwritten many Malaysian religious activities.
  3. North Indians. This has included a professional and merchant class, (mainly Gujerati and Bengali), but also Sikhs and Pathans, many of whom were recruited into the police and military forces (Sandhu).
  4. Ceylonese "Jaffna" Tamils. These were recruited throughout the entire British period to fill administrative positions in British run enterprises. Until well after independence, Jaffna Tamils retained a strong sense of "apartness" refusing to identify themselves with the wider Indian community. The Ceylonese were drawn overwhelmingly from the dominant Vellalar caste (Rajakrishnan, 1993), and observed Agamic "great tradition" Hinduism. Their influence on the post-war emergence of Saiva Siddhanta in Malaysia and their input on the overall development of Agamic traditions has been considerable.
  5. Professional and clerical migrants: These mainly consisted of well educated Dravidians, largely of Tamil origin, but included a large number of Malayalam (Arasaratnam, 1970, pp 33-34). Most of this intake sought employment in Malaya throughout the 1920's and 1930's. Many of these became involved in the post war Tamil revival and have promoted the wider tenets of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy.
In 1990, Indians comprised 8% of the population (Far Eastern Economic Review, 7 June 1990). 1970 figures indicate that 80% of Malaysian Indians belonged to the working class. Approximately 80% were Indian Tamils, 8.1% other Dravidians, 7.7% North Indians, and 2.7% Ceylon Tamils. Approximately 80% of Indians identified themselves as Hindus (Rajoo, 1983, p. 101).

It is important to note that Hinduism in Malaysia has evolved in the absence of those traditional sources of authority - the religious centres of learning or monastic orders (math) which have provided a system of hermeneutics and scriptural exegesis, and an influential Brahmin or dominant orthodox caste - which have shaped Hindu structures, belief systems, mythology and patterns of worship in India.

Malaysian Hinduism has historically been dominated by Dravidian folk religions, the so-called "little" traditions or village Hinduism. These have been characterized by the centrality of Mother (Amman) worship, the worship of "little" deities, (both guardian and caste), the construction of non-Agamic temples served by lower caste pucaris, spirit mediumship (often employing rituals based on "left handed" or debased Tantrism), folk beliefs and animal sacrifice. Village deities vary widely and in Malaysia a bewildering diversity are represented in non-Agamic temples, shrines and holy sites. With their migration to Malaysia many guardian deities have undergone a process of cosmological elevation and are now perceived as major deities in their own right (Rajoo, 1983).

These folkish practices and beliefs permeate Malaysian Hindu society at all levels, and are often found among educated Hindus (including some who profess an orthodox Saivite/Agamic background.) (1)

To a large extent, Malaysian Hinduism remains a loosely integrated system, free of a predominant authoritative tradition, and containing a bewildering diversity of religious forms.

However, this seemingly emphatic pluralism masks various unifying tendencies whose genesis can be traced to the post war Hindu reform movements (Arasaratnam, 1970, pp 162-176) These groups, which included the influential Malayan Hindu Sangam, reflected a renewed interest in the Indian Hindu heritage, and were strongly steeped in Dravidian ideologies. They aimed at promoting an over-arching model of Agamic ("great tradition") Hinduism, a revival of Tamil arts and literature, and the discouragement of local beliefs and practices built on caste, class, sects, and regional loyalties. These centripetal impulses include the Tamilization of Malaysian Hinduism, syncretisation of village/Agamic Hinduism as well as Saivite/Vaishnavite motifs, a process of Sanskritization/ Agamicization, and the popularisation of major Sanskritic festivals including Sivaratri and Navaratri (Rajoo, 1984, p 105).

These unificatory movements have been fuelled by an underlying need to reinterpret traditional forms of Hinduism to create a new Hindu social personality more appropriate to multi-ethnic Malaysia. The paradigmatic model has been Saiva Siddhanta, an orthodox Agamic philosophical system of Saivism practiced and propagated by upper class and educated Tamils (Arasaratnam, 1970, p 167). The promotion of Saiva Siddhanta has been facilitated by the softening of caste boundaries (Rajoo, 1983, p. 102) which has rendered ineffective the hierarchical divisions of religious practice and belief. Reformulation of Hinduism has thus been impelled by issues of class and status. Agamicization is viewed by working and lower class Hindus as not only a method of seeking a common cultural alliance with upper class Hindus, and an affirmation of group cohesion, but also as a means of attaining identification by other ethnic groups as equal partners with higher status Indians within an ancient, rich and defining philosophical and religious tradition (Rajoo, 1984 p. 168).

Agamicization/Sanskritization generally follows a set pattern, and involves a given community making a series of conscious decisions over an extended period to move toward set Agamic models of worship (Rajoo, 1984). Initially a village deity will be identified as a form of a deity within the Agamic tradition. Often this will require that the village deity be invested with new and more powerful attributes which raises his/her status to approximate to those which characterize the chosen Agamic deity with whom he/she has been identified. (Thus, for example, Kali Amman will become an aspect of Parvati, and Muniyanti may be apotheosised as an aspect of Murukan.) Having made this decision, the community will gradually eliminate folkish traditions, especially animal sacrifice and mediumship, and all non-Brahmin rituals. The temples dedicated to the deity will be reconstructed according to Agamic prescription and rededicated using Agamic ritual. The temple will then employ Brahmin Kurukkals to replace local lower caste pucaris. Often the temple committee will set up educational, cultural and outreach programs based on "great tradition" Hinduism.

The results of all syncretic movements are both unpredictable and uneven, and may be subject to active resistance and manipulation. Visvualingam (pp 427-454) argues that such spasmodic outcomes are inevitable. He contends that the division of Hinduism into two distinct strands (Agamic/Brahminic orthodoxy and popular/village Hinduism) is both artificial and erroneous. According to his view Hinduism is best perceived as a continuum in which elements of the "classical"/orthodox are reworked to provide significance for devotees of the lower castes, and elements of the "lower" tradition(s), especially those which belong in the realm of raw bhakti movements, are "reformed" (i.e. Sanskritized) and adapted to classical symbology. I would suggest that Tai Pucam provides a Malaysian example of this complex reformulation.

I would argue that the central unifying figure in the tenuous recasting of Malaysian Hinduism is the deity Murukan, who reaches most sectors of Malaysian Hindu society. Murukan is a pan Tamil Agamic deity readily accepted within the framework of Saiva Siddhanta. Moreover, as Clothey (p. 71) demonstrates, Murukan has by a lengthy process of syncretism, absorbed a wide variety of motifs, attributes and belief structures, which render him acceptable and accessible throughout Tamil society. And in the anti Brahmin sentiments which have become a leitmotif of post-war Tamil politics in Malaysia (Amplavanar, 1993), Murukan can be presented as a Dravidian god, par excellence, freed from the putative despotic tyranny of northern Aryan traditions. As Zvelebil (p. 2) remarks, "...Murugan is all to everyone."

Tai Pucam: Mythology Sakti presents the Vel to Bala Murugan

Among Malaysian Hindus, Tai Pucam is usually described as a festival commemorating granting of the Sakti Vel, 'electric spear' or vetrivel) to Murugan by Parvati, consort of Siva, at the outset of his campaign to defeat Surapadma, head of the asuras (demonic forces) (2).

At the cosmological level, this myth represents nothing less than the process of phenomenological atrophy and dissolution, and its subsequent reconstitution and renewal. The Divine has two essential states. Being, the passive, is known as Siva, and Becoming, the dynamic, is known as Sakti. These are popularly envisaged as "masculine" and "feminine". Without the feminine aspect, Siva is remote and unknowable, and without the masculine aspect Sakti has no existence. Thus the bestowal by Sakti (Parvati) of the Vel, the instrument by which the cosmic harmony is re-established, upon (the Siva created) Murukan, represents a manifest fusion of the Divine's absolute and generative powers. Murukan and the Vel in conjunct ion implies "...the integrating of dualities in a manner consistent with Saiva thought…. ... Murugan and his lance are Siva-Sakti, the cosmic pair" (Clothey. p 183).

At the human level, the battlefield is internalised, and the Vel becomes a symbol of the means to spiritual liberation. The "birth" of Murukan is recognition of the yogic grace extended by Siva. Murukan is created by Siva to destroy the bondages of ignorance imposed by the individual ego, but is furnished with the means to do this (the Sakti Vel) by Parvati. Murukan is thus perceived as the principle of Siva-Sakti in action within the substance of the mind.

But as Zvelebil points out, all Tamil mythology is multifocal and thus interpretable on many planes, namely as a story, metaphorically, and as a cosmological expression of metaphysical principles and divine truths. My field researches suggest that many devotees simply view the commemoration of the acquisition of the Vel as a propitious time to resolve personal (karmic) difficulties or to "repay" the deity for major adjustments in family or social life.

Tai Pucam is celebrated on the day in which the asterism Pucam is on the ascendant in the month of Tai (January-February). The presiding star is the planet Brihaspati (Jupiter) which is considered beneficent (Arasaratanam, 1966, p. 13). Of especial significance is that Pucam falls on or near the full moon day. In the Murukan tradition, the full moon implies completion, fulfilment and total maturity in powers (Clothey, pp 135-6). Moreover the asterism Pucam is reputed to be that of tantapani, which either represents a staff, suggesting either the role of ascetic, or a military leader, thus implicitly linking the relationship between ascetic and military leader. ("The latter subdues the enemy with an army; the former subdues the passions with a staff" (Clothey, p. 138). Murukan is known as Tanta Yutapani at Palani, and is represented as an ascetic.

Tai Pucam: Basic Structure

Tai Pucam was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1888. According to popular tradition, this was initiated by Mr Kayaroganam Pillai, founder of the Śrī Maha Mariamman Kovil Devasthanam, who dreamed that Sakti requested him to build a shrine for her son, Murukan, on top of the hill at Batu Caves (Neelvani). The Devasthanam continues to manage the Batu Caves complex as well as the city temple and retains responsibility for organizing Tai Pucam.

Tai Pucam in Malaysia is staged over a three day period. The Festival commences with the early morning departure of the murti of Murukan from the Śrī Maha Mariamman Kovil in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to his home in the mountains at Batu Caves, a distance of 12.8 kilometres. Despite the pre-dawn start, a large crowd (police estimates range to 150,000, but unofficial sources place the figure much higher), turns out to accompany the chariot on its processional route

The silver chariot is preceded by religious dignities, and is accompanied by musicians (including nadeswaram players and drummers), kolattam (dance) groups, and a bevy of religious groups, many singing bhajans and chanting, others distributing food and drinks among the crowd. Several devotees will also bear kavatis throughout the procession.

Upon arrival at Batu Caves, Murukan is transferred to a prepared platform in a downstairs shrine, and a special installation is performed. Later the golden vel from the chariot is presented to the chief pantaram from the Śrī Subrahmanya Swami Kovil who carries the vel upstairs to the hill shrine within the main cave.

The bulk of the second day is devoted to formal acts of worship and service. While the attention of the vast crowd is focused upon the vibrant spectacle of thousands of devotees who fulfil vows by taking kavatis, there are others who meet spiritual obligations in less obvious ways. These may involve manning pantals, serving meals and drinks, or providing first aid and other essential services.

The third day of Tai Pucam is devoted to the return journey of Murukan to the Śrī Mariamman Kovil. Between 8 and 9 am the golden vel is removed from the hill shrine and returned to the murti downstairs. Murugan is then re-installed in the silver chariot, and leaves Batu Caves. Because of traffic restrictions the procession halts for most of the day at the Sentul area, now in the process of redevelopment, but once a working class Indian suburb. At 6.30 pm the murti is once again placed within the chariot. A large and intense crowd accompanies the chariot to the Śrī Maha Mariamman Kovil. As with the outward journey the chariot makes frequent stops to meet the needs of devotees, and generally does not reach the Kovil until 1 am.

The Kavati Ritual

The kavati ritual, a pre-eminent feature of Tai Pucam in Malaysia, is legitimated and given shape by the mythology surrounding the asura-turned-devotee Itampan. This is outlined as follow:

Agastya, a rishi, journeyed to Mt. Kailasa to worship Siva. Siva asked that Agastya transport two hills, Sivagiri and Saktigiri, to South India as seats of worship. Agastya commissioned the demon Itampan, an asura who had served in the army of Surapadma, to undertake this task. Itampan collected both hills, and tied them to a simple shoulder pole by means of sacred serpents which were used in place of ropes. This was the proto-typical kavati. Near a forest at a site now known as Palani, Itampan tired and set the hills down while he rested. When he attempted to resume his journey, he found that hills were stuck to the ground. Upon ascending the slopes he discovered a youth clad in only a loin cloth, holding a staff and "...shining like a thousand suns" (Zvelebil, p 32). This youth claimed the hills as his own. In the subsequent fight, Itampan was killed but both Agastya and Itampi (Itampan's wife) interceded and pleaded on Itampan's behalf, and Murukan restored Itampan to life. Itampan requested that he remain forever at the portal of Murukan's shrine (Neelvani). Henceforth whoever offered vows to Murukan bearing a kavati was blessed.
The myth provides a model for a specific form of ritual worship. Zvelebil remarks (p. 32) that "...one of the functions of this myth is to explain and authorize the custom of kavati so widespread among Murugan worshippers in South India, Ceylon and Malaysia." And Clothey states (p. 120), "All devotees who bring the kavati or submit to the god on the hilltop are thought to re-enact the example of that primordial devotee whose malevolence and simple mindedness were taken from him in that act of worship." As with the transformation of the asura Surapadma, Itampan is relieved of the burden of ignorance through the burden of the divine.

It is this concept which underlies the principle of worship at Tai Pucam. By carrying or placing his/her burden at the feet of Murukan, the aspirant publicly demonstrates the wish to be freed from the yoke of those burdens.

A subsidiary theme is that of asceticism. For at this time, Murukan had renounced the world and family life and repaired to Palani on his self imposed exile to penetrate to the heart of truth (Clothey, p. 118).

While to most Malaysian devotees, the word "kavati" connotes "burden", there is no single agreed burden which must be borne at Tai Pucam. However, there are several unifying motifs. Firstly, in bearing a kavati, the devotee, in emulating Itampan, is submitting to the will of a specified deity. Secondly, the kavati is perceived as a "...shrine in miniature" (Babb, pp 8-9) containing the god himself, so that the devotee may view himself in the manner of a vahana. Thirdly, devotees will bear a gift of milk to be presented to Murugan in his shrine within the Caves.

While kavatis range from the simple to the complex, most involve some form of bodily mortification. Some young men pull "chariots", drawn by ropes which are secured by hooks into devotees' backs, and often anchored by a friend who walks behind.

Most kavati bearers also take two miniature vels, one of which is pushed through the tongue, the other through the cheeks. These indicate firstly that the pilgrim has temporarily renounced the gift of speech (the vow of silence, maunam) so that he/she may concentrate more fully upon Murukan, and secondly that the devotee has passed wholly under the protection of the deity who will not allow him/her to shed blood or suffer pain. By permitting the vel to pierce the flesh the aspirant is indicating the transience of the physical body as opposed to the enduring power of truth.

Not all kavatis are borne for Murukan. Indeed a wide range of deities is represented at Tai Pucam. Kavatis are carried in honour of other Saivite deities, Vaishnavite deities, (principally Krishna, Rama and Hanuman), and village and guardian deities such as Muniyanti, Madurai Viran, Kali Amman and Durga. The honouring of "little" deities, and the accompanying left-handed or "transgressive"(Visvualingam) modes of worship which contradict basic Agamic principles have elicited much criticism from orthodox Hindus (Govinda Raj).

The decision to take a kavati may be prompted by a number of factors, including penance, spiritual unfoldment, overcoming unfavourable karma, but in most instances is undertaken to honour a vow. Stereotypically, those fulfilling a vow have entered a reciprocal contract with Murukan, a sort of "cosmic bargaining", in which they have agreed to bear a kavati if a certain request is fulfilled, e.g. recovery from illness, birth of a baby, reconciliation within a family.

Kavati bearers are drawn from the entire spectrum of Malaysian Hindu society. Indeed my own research confirms the observation made by Simons et al (p. 269) who indicated that the subjects of his study "...ranged in age from 12 to over 50 and were equally divided as to sex. They came from all socio-economic levels, and educational backgrounds, and included unemployed youths, college students, labourers and businessmen." Tai Pucam, ostensibly a Tamil festival, now draws Hindus from all regional Indian backgrounds represented in Malaysia, as well as Sikhs, members of Malaysia's miniscule Sinhalese community, and Chinese devotees.

Those who decide to bear a kavati must enter a period of purification, and become temporary renunciants or ascetics. Ideally, the purificatory rites should extend over 48 days, but many devotees observe lesser periods, and experienced participants may fast for as little as seven days.

Aspirants who take kavatis do so in a state of trance. This may be induced by chanting, music, especially drumming, and incense. The onset of the trance state, known as arul (state of grace) is obvious to all bystanders, and is marked with a host of visible signals including trembling, exaggerated facial contortions, buckling at the knees, etc. It is at this point that the kavati is fitted, and the vels inserted.

Simons et al claims (p. 263) that the trance is typically followed by amnesia. This is not the experience of the majority of kavati bearers with whom I have been associated or those whom I have interviewed. While cases of amnesia may occur, a typical trance falls into the category that Bourguignon labels a "visionary" trance. In these cases the initial trance recedes and is replaced by a condition the devotee reports as a form of heightened "supercharged" awareness. In this state the devotee is cognizant of all that is happening around him/her and is able to respond positively to directions, but feels him/herself to be operating at a level which is infinitely superior to mundane consciousness. This has also been my own experience.

The kavati having been fitted, devotees set off to their destination, surrounded by an escorting group who chant and form a protective ring around them. Along the route the devotee will engage in a ritualised dance known colloquially as the "kavati" dance, reflecting Murukan's role as Lord of the Dance (Zvelebil, pp 33-35).

The devotees make their way, often through considerable congestion, to the foot of the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves. Upon reaching the shrine, the milk is taken from the kavati, poured over the golden vel within the shrine, the kavati is dismantled , the miniature vels removed, and the devotee is brought out of any residual trance. The formal aspect of the vow is now fulfilled.

On the third day after bearing a kavati, the devotee attends an Itampan puja, which formally concludes the period of temporary renunciation. This acknowledges for some devotees Itampan's protection, for others the symbolic role of Itampan as a gatekeeper to Murukan and his (and their own) spiritual transformation. The devotee is now formally released from the period of renunciation, is "returned" to society and may resume his or her normal lifestyle.


While Tai Pucam in Malaysia is consciously modelled upon the mythology, traditions and rituals celebrated at Palani, Tamil Nadu, the processes of relocation and adaptation have endowed it with a character which is uniquely Malaysian.

Since World War II Tai Pucam has emerged as the largest and most uniformly celebrated Malaysian Hindu festival, and its growing popularity, as expressed in continually increasing crowds (3) and the swelling ranks of kavati bearers, attest to its perceived relevance to Malaysian Hindus.

Tai Pucam provides a profound and religiously sanctioned identity within the received parameters of the Hindu bhakti tradition at a number of levels. At the individual level, kavati worship is an act of self definition, a public accomplishment which demonstrates both purification and spiritual worthiness. At the group level Tai Pucam forms and consolidates social and network loyalties within the framework of service, ritual and worship. At a community level, Tai Pucam celebrates the South Indian (and increasingly the entire Hindu) community within the context of a culturally plural society. It is a commemoration which simultaneously expresses uniqueness and pride, and speaks of solidarity and resistance to the plethora of forces which threaten cultural and religious integrity. And on every level Tai Pucam signals allegiance to a wider cultural and political world, to pan-Hindu notions of pilgrimage and worship, to specifically Tamil concepts of bhakti devotion.

Tai Pucam is permeated with the mythology and symbology of Murugan. While Tai Pucam affords expression to the entire gamut of Malaysian Hinduism from village to Agamic, and reflects all the diverse permutations of the incomplete processes of reconfiguration and reform, all worship is saturated with the rituals and occurs within the framework of received Murukan paradigms.

In sum, Tai Pucam both encapsulates and gives voice to unificatory syncretic tendencies, as well as creating a momentum of its own. In a society dominated by ethnicity, Murukan has become a potent and catalytic symbol of Tamil and Hindu identity. His wide and evolving appeal will continue to play an integral role in the formulation of a distinctive Malaysian Hindu tradition.


  1. Taken from field notes.
  2. The bulk of this and following sections on Tai Pucam have been compiled through observation, participation and interviews.
  3. Press estimates in 1997 put the crowds at 800,000 (Batu Caves) and 300,000 (Penang).



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  2. Jessy, Joginder Singh. The Indian Army of Independence. BA Hons thesis, University of Singapore, 1957.
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Carl Vadivella Belle at center in the company of Keralite devotees at Palani, Tai Pucam 1998.

Carl Vadivella Belle, Ph.D. is a former diplomat whose career in the Australian Foreign Service was terminated on account of his devotional activities in Malaysia and Australia.. He is the author of Towards Truth: An Australian Spiritual Journey (Sydney: Pacific Press, 1992) and a practicing journalist and farmer outside Adelaide, Australia. He is also the editor of Bhakti! newsletter published in Canberra, Australia.

He may be contacted at:

48 Adey Road
Blackwood SA 5051 Australia
Tel/fax: 61-8-83700111

See also:
"Towards Truth: An Australian Spiritual Journey" by Carl Vadivella Belle
"Murugan and the Vel: The Individual Implications" by Carl Vadivel Belle
"Malaysian Hindu Pilgrimage: Kavadi Worship at Batu Caves" by Carl Vadivel Belle
Interview with Carl Vadivel Belle
Belle's review of Pierced by Murugan's Lance by Elizabeth Fuller Collins
"Following Murukan: Tai Pucam in Singapore"
other articles from International Conferences on Skanda-Murukan