|DEEPAVALI – A Festival of Lights
To the Hindus, oil lamps symbolize the removal 01 darkness within human hearts by replacing it with light.
Every seventh month of the Tamil lunar calendar, Hindus all over the world celebrate a festival known as Deepavali or Diwali. The word “Deepavali” is a Sanskrit term meaning “.Row of Lights”. It is a time when they commemorate the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. Many stories abound about the origin of the festival. According to the most popular legend, on evil king by the name of Narakasura loved darkness and would torture and kill people who had lights in their houses. As he became ever more powerful, his subjects feared for their lives and pleaded to God for help.
In answering their prayers, God come down to earth in the form of Lord Krishna who fought and slayed Narakasura. On his deathbed, Narakasura regretted his evil ways and asked that the people rejoice upon his death by lighting lamps to dispel his gloomy reign. And rejoice they did. Today, Hindus celebrate Deepavali by lighting oil lamps all around their homes. The oil lamps symbolize the removal of darkness within human hearts by replacing it with light. Celebrations begin on the eve of Deepavali when family members gather in the house of the elders. It is a time for families to end feuds and settle misunderstandings.
Everyone wakes up before sunrise the following morning to bathe in sesame seed oil (also known as gingerly oil) to purify their bodies and cleanse themselves of sins of the past year. They then dress up in new clothes – sarees and Punjabi suits for the women and jippas and veshtis (long-sleeved tunics and sarongs) for the men – and gather with the rest of the family to receive blessings from their elders. Sometimes, pockets of money are given to the younger members of the family. After prayers at home, the whole family visits the temple for mass prayers. Following the elaborate ceremonial rites, families return home to receive friends of all races in the spirit of the Malaysian open house”.
The open house concept is something that is uniquely Malaysian and came about due to the multi-ethnic society in the country. Malaysians of all races and religions celebrate each other’s religious and cultural festivals together showing that racial tolerance, understanding, respect and unity are a way of life treasured in this multi-racial country. In Malaysia, it’s common for Chinese, Indian and Malay neighbours to live on the some street. By celebrating and sharing the main religious festivals with other races, Malaysians have come to understand and appreciate each other’s religious beliefs and celebrations. On such occasions, there is certainly much eating, drinking and merrymaking. A typical Deepavali spread includes Indian food such as rice and curries for the mains, and titbits such as murukku, a crispy, savoury snack mode of rice flour, and sweet coconut candy.
These days, it’s common to find traditional Indian food served side by side with other local Malay, Chinese and even European food, to cater to the varied palates! So don’t be surprised to find pasta, curry and fried rice being served on a plate! At the front entrance of the house, it’s typical to find a colourful kolam or rangoli, a decorative artwork made from dyed rice flour or rice laid out on the floor in interesting motifs of flowers and symmetrical shapes, lines and curves. Creating the kolam requires a steady hand, dexterity, concentration and patience. Besides their decorative value, kolam’s are believed to invite the Goddess of Wealth, Mahalakshmi, to bless the homes where they are found.
Thaipusam is celebrated on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan/Feb). Pusam refers to a star that is at its highest point during the festival. The Thaipusam festival commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam), the occasion when his mother Devi Parvathy gave Lord Murugan a vel (lance) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman, and when he taught his father (Lord Shiva) the meaning of the word Aum. Aum is a highly potent terminology in Hinduism that signifies the primeval sound of creation. The significance here is based on the moment when a son turned teacher to his father.
Customarily, Thaipusam is celebrated during the month of Thai when the moon waxes to its zenith (full moon). Apparently, there are several places in Malaysia where this celebration takes place, but if you are visiting Malaysia for the first time, the celebration can best be viewed at Batu Caves (in Kuala Lumpur) and in Penang. On the eve of the celebration, devotees would gather at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Tun H S Lee Road, (High Street) Kuala Lumpur to witness the ceremonial “bath” of Lord Murugan. The deity is then dressed with elaborate offerings, gold ornaments and colourful flowers before being placed on a silver chariot drawn by two oxen. The chariot is then taken on a pilgrimage from the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple to the Sri Subramaniar shrine at Batu Caves.
By 12.30 am, the chariot begins to move out of the temple grounds and thus begins its slow, eight-hour journey to Batu Caves. At the same time, thousands of devotees will accompany the silver chariot on its long journey, some carrying the kavadi as a vehicle of self-inflicted penance. The kavadi is a concept originated from India and is actually something like a mobile altar carried on both shoulders as a sign of accomplishment of their vow to the Lord for the purpose of tiding over or averting a great calamity. It can be made of either wood or steel and is decorated with peacock feathers, coloured papers, tinsels, flowers and lime. Word has it that in the olden days, normally Lord Murugan temples were set atop high ridges and mountains.
Whilst undertaking the long and hard journey uphill, the devotees would inflict a heavy burden onto themselves. Some would hang pitchers of milk and pots of honey as a token of their love to the deity. These venerable burdens would normally be wrapped in saffron cloth, indicating “total submission to God”. In a similar manner, the devotees in Kuala Lumpur would make an effort to ascend the 272 steps at Batu Caves whilst carrying a heavy burden on their back and shoulders. The significance of this represents the divine understanding that some people describe to. They belief that it is not easy to attain the feet of God without first putting some effort and labour as a sacrifice. Only those who pass this test will be pleased with lots of bounties and glad tidings.
MIND OVER MATTER
Devotees conform to a certain ritual in their preparation before they can participate in fulfilling their vows during Thaipusam. The preparation takes about a month prior to the celebration. Devotees rise very early in the morning and take a customary bath to cleanse themselves. They then observe a strict vegetarian fast and complete chastity for about a month. According to orthodox doctrine, rigid fasting and abstinence have to be observed over a 48-day period prior to the offering of the kavadi on Thaipusam Day. The main meal comprises only of milk and fruits. This is to fortify the senses and suppress passions – it helps in achieving a profound control of the mind over matter. Such incredible feats of mind over matter are commonly demonstrated during the celebration.
Some devotees would add burden to the kavadi with heavy pitchers of milk, while others prefer to pierce their cheeks with spears and hooks. Kavadi bearers or the devotees who have been pierced are believed to attain spiritual strength to enable him to do incredible feats. He dances with the kavadi on their shoulders and metal skewers pierced through his cheeks. Accompanying family members and devotees would chant “Vel, Vel Muruga” (Glory unto Muruga). “Vel” is a word that represents a lance or spear wielded by Lord Murugan which he uses to fend off evil and symbolizes wisdom. Another spectacle that you will witness during the Thaipusam celebration is the breaking of coconuts during the chariot procession and at the temple grounds. This signifies humility and the suppression of one’s ego upon attaining wisdom. Even, non-Hindu devotees are sometimes seen breaking coconuts to fulfill their vows.