The 42.7 meter high idol of Lord Murugan
The 42.7 meter high idol of Lord Murugan

Thaipusam is the festival of Hindu Tamils observed annually at Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and by the Tamil diaspora worldwide. Observed in the Tamil month of Thai, it falls on different dates during January-February. It was observed on February 10 this year.

Thaipusam has become the largest single gathering of any religious festival in Malaysia. As it involves one of the largest Indian diasporas, it is considered to be the most significant Hindu festival to be held outside India. Besides Indian cities, it is observed by the Tamils in South Africa, Mauritius, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

Such is the cultural significance of this festival, with its traditions and rituals, that is now the subject of a book and a seminar on it is being being organized by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, in Singapore on March 1.

The keynote address will be by the book’s author, Dr Carl Vadivella Belle, an Australian who has specialized in an array of issues relating to Malaysia, Malaysian Indians and the lives of Malaysian Hindus.

Recent census statistics indicate that ethnic Indians comprise a mere 7.4 per cent of Malaysia's total population of 30 million, with Hindus constituting a 84.1 per cent of that figure.

At the Batu Caves, the 42.7 meter high idol of Lord Murugan is reached by climbing 272 steps. As per legend, Lord Shiva created Murugan to fight the demons.

Thousands participate in this festival, observing fast and carrying fruits and flowers as offerings and chant “Velvel Sakthivel.”

Dr Belle examines Thaipusam in terms of long established cultural and religious traditions, in the particular those of divine kingship and the rituals of Hindu pilgrimage. He argues that far from being a merely Malaysian phenomenon, Thaipusam is a feature of the wider Tamil diaspora, and is constructed from condensed coded or Tamil history and culture.

However, within the Malaysian context, Thaipusam is not only a continuing political and social assertion of Hindu identity, but as a festival sends a variety of signals, some agonistic, to a range of audiences both within Malaysia and beyond, the institute has said.

Dr Belle was appointed Inaugural Hindu chaplain at the Flinders University of South Australia in 2005. He has lectured extensively on both Malaysian politics and society, and on South Indian Hindu traditions, as well as wider religious issues, and has published numerous papers on these topics.

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