MAGAZINE

How Does Thaipusam Rate on the Human Celebration Index?

Photo by: FEST300
Sat February 02, 2013 | 12:00 AM

DSC01077_0

As seen on AFAR

Bettany Hughes wrote, “Socrates thought it futile to catalogue the world without first loving it.” That’s an apt summing up of my Thaipusam experience. Having witnessed the graphic videos and photos of this million-person festival before traveling to Kuala Lumpur, I came ready to judge it less on the internal experience and more based upon the external visuals for spectators like me.

Batu_3menThese three fellows smudged my forehead with ash and each gave me a hug, all for no apparent reason

But, less than 24 hours in the wake of Thaipusam, I realize that rituals just allow people to make their values concrete and explicit. In the United States, it’s Super Bowl season, a time when the American gladiator spirit of survival of the fittest is found in the ritual of an epic football game in a grand stadium. For the Tamil Hindus in Malaysia, a Muslim country, Thaipusam represents both devotion to deities and to family. This truly is a family affair.

Batu_babyDevotion starts young

African author Malidoma Some has suggested, “Where ritual is absent the young ones are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered.” We all have rituals. Rituals are what create generational wisdom and a sense of collective meaning.

Batu_familyThis woman’s husband and daughter are right in front of her

What I kept asking myself at this first of five Asian festivals I was experiencing over five weeks was, “What is the spirit behind the festival?” Thaipusam exists as a reminder that we can transcend our earthly obstacles through discipline and devotion, through belief in powers beyond ourselves, and through the universal love of family and friends.

Batu_Boy_frameCould you balance a headdress that is taller than you?

“Collective effervescence” is the common currency that’s experienced at the best of festivals where people positively lose themselves and find their connection to something bigger. Festivals remind us we’re not alone in this world.

Batu_coconutsAt the end of the festival, all that’s left is the smashed coconuts meant to signify the triumph of good over evil