Sunday February 3, 2013
Thaipusam up close and personal
Here’s a firsthand account of Thaipusam up close and personal.
FOR years I have been postponing my visit to my hometown Penang for the Thaipusam festival. I had many excuses – too tired, traffic jams, having to walk long distances – and, of course, I would rather stay in bed than bake in the sun on a public holiday. This year, with my new interest in film photography and my brother-in-law Joseph’s encouragement to capture the moments on film, it seemed like a reason to go to the annual Thaipusam festival with him.
Childhood memories of the Thaipusam festival are etched in my mind very vividly. My family stayed at the vicinity of the waterfall temple for years during my childhood years. The Waterfall Road area is the vortex of the Thaipusam celebration.
My neighbour, Uncle Somasundram, was a kavadi decorater. I used to see how he was so engrossed in decorating the kavadi. I noticed how the kavadi arrived as a simple wooden frame to his house and on the day just before Thaipusam, a trishaw would come to take the kavadi to the base station. I found it captivating to see how a simple frame could be transformed into a beautifull kavadi.
Though I am not a Hindu, my parents allowed Uncle Somasundram’s sons and daughters to take me along to see the festival. I’m glad that my parents saw the need to expose me at a young age to other religions to observe how they were practised.
I would tag along with my neighbours and it was then that I had my first experience of mooru at the thaneer panthal.
(At first I thought it was milk and only later learnt that it was a diluted yogurt drink.) The thaneer panthal are water and food stalls that provide free food and water as a community service to the Thaipusam visitors.
I loved the mooru, but at that age, I wondered why there were curry leaves and sesame seeds in the drink.
This year, we started our trip during the wee hours of the morning where the charriot leeaves from. This was on a Saturday. I checked my lenses and loaded the appropiate film for low light photography. Unfortunately, we ended up on the wrong side of the road and couldn’t get a clear view of the charriot.
The place was filled with people. As the sounds of the tavul and nadeswaram (traditional Indian musical instruments used in grand occasions and religious festivals: nadeswaram is a oboe-like instrument, the tavul is an Indian drum) became more intense, Joseph and I decided to quickly head in the opposite direction to get a clear view of the charriot, only to discover that it was turning away from us. We were at the wrong angle again. I told Joseph we would need another year to take good photos.
Later, on Thaipusam day the next day, I stationed myselt at Lorong Kulit where most kavadi bearers got themselves pierced and started their journey.
The shouts of “vel, vel” became the background sound of the whole festival. Various kavadis were seen along Lorong Kulit. Each kavadi bearer had his own entourage of musicians playing the drums. As a musician myself, I felt like the rhythm was reigning supreme over matters at Lorong Kulit. Somehow, the rhythm wrapped around the prayers and thanksgiving offered to Lord Murugan.
Next, I headed to Waterfall Road where the thaneer panthals were elaborately decorated. It was like the panthals were competing with each other. Some had deity figures towering 10m high.
I remembered the thaneer panthals as simple wooden stalls decorated with leaves and simpler designs during my childhood days. Hit songs from Ilayaraja, a South Indian film music composer, were blasted then.
Back to the future, I quickly searched for the mooru. Most stalls were giving orange flavoured, and some pink and red coloured drinks. I managed to find my mooru from a stall.
I saw youths dancing their hearts out as the rhythm lead them further into a frenzy at a certain thaneer panthal where the kavadis were. Some families walked with pots of milk on their head under the blistering sun. As I captured the colourful moments with my camera, I noticed my camera light meter flashing, indicating that it was getting harder to get a shot without a flash.
It was already night fall. The loudspeakers took over at the thaneer panthal now, playing holy songs in praise of Lord Murugan.
I saw some devotees shedding tears when they saw the charriot, while others stood in awe and prayer. Kavadi bearers fulfilling their vows, families walking together to pray, children running around happily watching the colouful surroundings, and more importantly, people with hopes and prayers to fulfil – they were all there.
As I walked to my car, the pulsating rhythm of the drums sounded faint in the distance. The glaring lights from the thaneer panthal grew dim. I lugged my camera back with seven rolls of undeveloped film.
I had carefully placed them back in the canister which the negatives came in.
The images of Thaipusam have been imprinted on the celluloid surface through the magic of light, just like how the memory of my childhood Thaipusam was etched in my heart.
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