Stranded in Penang- Part 5
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Between 10 and 11 per cent of the Penang population is of Tamil descent, originating from the south of India and the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka. On the weekend following the new year celebration, it was the Tamil community’s turn to party. Thaipusam, (Thai- is the month name, Pussam is the star that is particularly high at this time), is a celebration of the full moon and of Parvati giving Murugan a spear to kill an evil demon.
In the late afternoon on 8 February, chewing on fresh mango, we joined the throngs along the festival road lined with food and drink vendors. We, (especially Emily and I), admired the stunningly vibrant attire of the Tamil women in the robes and saris and observed the many men carrying elaborate decorated frameworks of steel called 'kavadis' that represent burdens. As the sun slipped behind the hills, we approached the temple grounds and were promptly accosted by someone wanting to look after our shoes in exchange for a small fee. Noticing that many others were bare foot at this point, we agreed to shed our shoes and began the 513 step climb to the …wait for it… “Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani temple” , (try saying that with a mouthful of sticky toffee). Although the temple was quite beautiful, the pungent scent of sewerage did bring a little irony to the otherwise sacred setting. Inside, the atmosphere was heaving. People were sitting on the floor, standing in corners and wondering around in a haze of incense. I fear I did become slightly mesmerised because I remember suddenly being aware of a drum beat, realised Emily and I had become separated from the rest of our party and had been following a kind of fluid queue, of whom the leader in his grass skirt and metal spear- pierced lips was weaving a path, circling the outer part of the main temple room.
Having found our shoes ,we eventually collapsed on our air b and b sofa. Although I’ve now experienced first-hand a fascinating Hindu festival, it’s ways and means remain quite a mystery. I'm still wondering as to whether it was the opulent beauty of the bold sari fabrics and glistening jewels or the eye-widening horror of the body piercings and eerie drum rhythms that remain as the lasting impression.