So exactly what happens on Thaipusam Eve?
Well, do expect the smashing of thousands of coconuts especially in George Town, Penang!
Though I call myself a Penangite, having lived in Penang all my life (on the mainland and island), I have never before witnessed the smashing of coconuts ‘live’. Sure, I’ve heard of it, saw news footages on TV and read news and articles but I never thought of actually being right on the scene.
On Thaipusam Eve on Jan 23, the company I work with set up a thaneer panthal (makeshift refreshment stall) in Jalan Datuk Keramat, so I finally made it there for this religious celebration. It featured a silver chariot procession and lots of coconut smashing.
What is Thaipusam?
Apart from Deepavali, Thaipusam is a major festival for Hindus in Malaysia. It is their second biggest celebration here, and it is usually held in January or February. Observed as a day of thanksgiving and paying penance for Lord Murugan, the Hindu God of War, Thaipusam is celebrated during the full moon in the 10th month of the Hindu calendar.
On Thaipusam Eve, devotees, other locals and tourists smash coconuts on the road before the arrival of the 122-year-old silver chariot bearing Lord Murugan. The chariot, with a planned route to follow, usually leaves the Kovil Veedu (Temple House) in Penang Street, Little India at dawn from 5.30am onwards. The procession, ending at the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple in Jalan Kebun Bunga at midnight, is led by devotees carrying kavadis adorned with peacock feathers.
Here’s an interesting fact: The statue in the chariot is more than 160 years old. This news report says the idol, weighing 4kg, was made in Chettinad, India in 1854!
Smashing coconuts on Thaipusam Eve
Thousands of coconuts were neatly arranged along Jalan Datuk Keramat and smashed before the chariot approached. According to what I read online, smashing coconuts symbolises the following:
- shattering of one’s ego
- achievement of self-realisation
- fulfillment of sacred vows
- cleansing the roads for the deity’s journey
At around 1.15pm, it was time to smash those coconuts. I took out my camera immediately and rushed to stand a few metres in front of the spectacle to snap my pictures. It wasn’t easy to secure a good spot (or any spot, in fact). Many other camera-wielding folks had the same purpose in mind.
It was exhilarating during the coconut smashing session, and it all happened way too fast. My camera ran out of battery after 30-plus shots (silly me, I forgot to charge it earlier). So I kept the camera and rushed back to the other side, getting ready to smash my first coconut. I threw it on the ground and guess what, it just bounced off! Someone then told me to throw harder and that’s what I did on my second throw with the same coconut. It smashed into pieces and boy, was I relieved!
There were more than enough coconuts for everyone and I smashed as many as I could. At one point, I was handing out coconuts to the others, and among them was an older lady who happily kept smashing the coconuts I was passing her. I then realised that I was missing out on the action, so I told her “Auntie, I want to smash coconuts too!”. I can’t remember if she understood, but the next thing I knew, I handed her one more coconut and I continued my coconut smashing.
The cleaning up
The after effect of the event was epic, like a ‘wow’ moment. The street was well-covered with thousands of pieces of the broken coconuts. To clear the road, the Penang Municipal Council workers were efficient indeed, sweeping up the bits and pieces to the side of the road before carting them away.
The silver chariot arrives
The buffalo-led silver chariot made its way past Penang Times Square an hour later, at around 2.30pm. Despite being under the hot sun, the devotees waited patiently, holding silver plates called Thaambalam, filled with offerings such as fruits, flowers and incense, to present to Lord Murugan.
Once as many plates of offerings had been collected, the chariot moved on to the next stop. The buffaloes sped past me with the chariot in tow and I couldn’t catch a proper glimpse of the idol.
It was no doubt an incredible experience being a bystander and also sort of a participant at Thaipusam Eve. There was so much that I learnt from the event.
I continued to discover more about this fascinating celebration the next day as I trudged up hundreds of steps to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple during the Thaipusam festival.