Thaipussam festival in Tamil Nadu


Part 2 of Premgit’s photo essay, Earth, Love, Divine, documents the festival celebrating Murugan, the warrior son of Shiva.


Like many Hindu festivals Thaipussam builds up over ten days or so to the main day, in this case the full moon of January/February. The name Thaipussam refers to the month (thai) and star (pussam) and celebrates a particular event in the life of Lord Murugan, the second son (after Ganesh) of Shiva.

This event, which concerns the myth of the battle of the Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons), begins in one of the earliest Indian texts, the Rig Veda. This battle raged for centuries and is written about again in Skanda Purana (a later text), where the Devas were losing badly. They appealed to Brahma to intervene on their behalf, to which he replied that Shiva and Parvati would soon have a son who would be a great warrior and vanquish the Asuras.

The spear or ‘vel’ takes its significance from Murugan’s weapon, gifted to him by his mother Parvati. It was with this spear he slayed the demon Tarakasura, which led eventually to peace.

Thaipussam is celebrated only by Tamils, and is not given any importance in other parts of India. In the North, Murugan is known as Skanda, the god of war, and has other mythologies and purposes attached to him.

In the South the festival’s popularity attracts a complete cross-section of Tamil society. We saw rural farmers and villagers side by side with city doctors and lawyers; teenagers sporting the latest hair fashion, with sadhus wearing millennia-old dreads. The pilgrims and devotees amass slowly over the ten days, many walking barefoot from distances of up to 250 km. This is a huge challenge, to say, a city banker, who unlike someone from a rural village is not used to going anywhere without shoes. Also, if he or she plans on having a spear piercing, they will have to fast for 48 hours beforehand, as part of the ritual cleansing.

On arriving in the town, the pilgrims make for the circular road which surrounds the temple hill. The devotees who wish to have a spear-piercing head to one of the smaller temples outside of the main complex, where this ceremony is performed. Then everyone makes one circle of the main temple, singing and dancing, before climbing the temple hill for darshan with Murugan. The large spears are taken out at the entrance due to not fitting either through the main gate or inside the temple. The spear exit holes are quickly daubed with wood ash and lemon juice which serve as an antiseptic.

Many devotees take part in a mala (rosary) blessing ceremony, just outside of the Murugan temple. Pilgrims bring incense sticks, bananas and coconuts as offerings to Murugan (first picture). The incense creates an atmosphere attractive for the god, whilst the banana, known in the south as a ‘royal fruit’, is associated with Parvati (Murugan’s mother), who is believed to have at one point incarnated as a banana plant. The coconut has to be broken in two before being offered and is representative of the human head containing the ego. Breaking the coconut symbolises the devotees’ willingness to stand before the god without ego.

The last day of the festival is the full moon. Thousands arrive just for that day, full of energy and anticipation as they will have darshan with Murugan. It’s almost impossible to move in the streets and anyone queueing for darshan can expect an eight- or nine-hour wait. On this last day we go out at sunrise, to photograph, but the streets soon become too packed to move so we retreat to a nearby rooftop with cups of chai.

Earth, Love, Divine is a three-part photographic essay shot exclusively on black and white 35mm film using Leica M6 cameras and short focal length lenses.


Premgit is a photographer, living on Dartmoor UK.

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