Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge

Thaipoosam Cavadee: Mortification to the Glory of Lord Muruga

— Dr Rabin Das

In Hindu scriptures Prayaschitta (Sanskrit: penance) means atonement or expiation of sins which may be committed by a person against the prevailing order or laws in a society, made by the King or of divine origin. The soul of the sinner is purified by atoning in the form of temporal punishment through willing acceptance of sufferings, the degree of which varies according to the proportion of sin. Mortification of flesh is found in Saint Paul’s, ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ The same idea is expressed in another verse, “Put to death what’s earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness”. Traditional forms of physical mortification causing more pain and afflictions by flagellation, piercing, beating, etc., are prescribed as well in Shi’ite Islam, Catholicism, Judaism and Hinduism. Shamans often use painful rites and self-denial such as fasting or celibacy to attain transformation, or to commune with God. In PN Kane’s well known work, the Literary History of Dharmasastras, he outlines the means for reducing the consequences of sin by way of confession, repentance (anutapa), restraint of breath (pranayama), austerity (tapas), sacrifice in fire (homa), chanting of Vedic mantras, prayers (japa), gifts (dana), fasting (upavas) and pilgrimages (tirthayatra).

Cavadee known under different names…

Actually it is a birthday celebration of Lord Muruga. Like other Hindu deities, Muruga has several names such as Sadanana (six-faced), Kumaraswamy (celibate prince), Dandapany (armed with mace), Skanda (oozing seeds of wisdom) and Senthil (smart or clever), and each one is associated with a beautiful anecdote. Thaipoosam Cavadee (Thai: full moon Tamil month corresponding to January-February; poosam: star which ascends to the highest position and Cavadee, a simple wooden yoke) is popularly called Thamizh Kadavul, meaning the god of Tamils. The most famous temple is in Palani, 64 km from the noted tourist spot Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, and the associated anecdote is that of Idumban.

In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, it is often associated with the snake and is known as Subramanya. The Kukke Subramanya shrine in Karnataka is well known for Sarpa (snake) Shanti. In Alapuzha, in the state of Kerala, the Haripada Subramanyaswami temple is famous for its dance kavadiattam. Almost 5000 Cavadee pilgrims come to this temple each year from far and wide. In Haryana, North India, Kumar Karthikeya, the celibate deity, is worshipped in a famous temple of Pehowa, where women are not allowed to enter. Even in Bengal the deity is venerated in the name of Karthik, son of Goddess Durga, observed in the month of November (Karthik). Outside India, Thaipoosam Cavadee is celebrated with pomp and grandeur in Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore and Sri Lanka mainly by Tamilian Hindus.

In Sri Lanka, both Hindus and Buddhists pray at the historical Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna. One legend goes that Lord Muruga courted a beautiful tribal Sinhala lass, Valli, and since then He is worshipped as Lord of Katragama (Katragama Deviyo), meaning that He can be won through love and devotion by anyone irrespective of social status.

In Malaysia, ethnic Chinese in Penang and Kuala Lumpur also pray to Lord Muruga during Thaipoosam for good luck and prosperity. It is a public holiday in many states of Malaysia, including Selangor, Negeri, Penang, Perak, Johor and Sungai. In Singapore also, Hindu devotees start their procession from Srinivasa Perumal temple at dawn, carrying sacred a milk pot on the head and a flag atop the Cavadee depicted with Muruga’s holy vel (spear). Indigenous Chinese devotees also celebrate Cavadee for fulfilling their vows on this day.

In Mauritius, the Thaipoosam Cavadee festival is a public holiday, falling on 27th January 2013. Last year it was observed on 7th February. Each year thousands of Hindus, especially South Indian devotees, celebrate this festival throughout the island as well as in Reunion. They walk several kilometers barefoot or sometimes with hobnailed wooden sandals in the scorching sun and scalding road surface, and forth up and scalding street down, through Vacoas up to the Ganga Talao, carrying colourfully decorated Cavadees, with the skin of their back pierced in honour of Lord Muruga, god of war and victory. They keep on chanting the Muruga mantra, ‘Om saravanabavaya namah, Om saravanabavaya namah.’

Nature and method of observance of the festival

The word Cavadee is derived from kaavu meaning ‘to carry’ while thadi indicates a ‘piece of polished wood’. It is made up of bamboo sticks and wooden bars, fastened together to make various designs such as temple, peacock, etc., having different sizes of arches with protruding midline vels (spears of Muruga), and are decorated with sparkling clothes, tinkling jingle-bells, miniature icons of Muruga, colourful flowers, peacocks’ feather, coconut shoots and banana leaves.

It is carried on the head or pulled by strings anchored with some sharp steel or silver hooks pierced through the devotee’s skin. Side by side lemons are also attached with sharp hooks.

The devotees will hoist a red flag (T: kodi) painted with the symbolic vel and peacock at the top of Muruga temple, marking the beginning of the festival and fasting. In fact, fasting is compulsory and lasts from ten days to a month. During this time of penance, the devotees meditate, pray, chant Muruga mantras and maintain austerity with deep devotion. This austerity of the penitent will purify the body and soul, dispelling hatred, passion, arrogance and jealousy. A bracelet marked with Muruga is put on the right wrist of a male and left wrist of a female devotee as a sign of commitment and obedience.

At dawn on the day of the festival, a male devotee shaves his head and takes ceremonial ablution in a nearby river or in the sea. Milk is carried in two small brass vessels (T: bosam) that are covered with a piece of cloth and banana leaf, before finally being tied up to the Cavadee. The forehead, shoulders, arms, back and chest are smeared with sacred ash (thiruneeru) and they wear small piece of cloth up to the waist only, reminiscent of the sackcloth and ashes of Jesus?

Next, the priest will pierce the metal vels, through the skin of all parts of a committed and silent devotee’s body. A needle pierced through the tongue makes the penitent mauni (silent) by refraining from talking or eating, thus he fasts. This locking of mouth is called vaai poottu which also signifies victory of good over evil.

Thousands of devotees, of both sexes and all ages, dressed in yellow and green and garlanded with marigold flowers, carry their cavadees in a procession (urvalam), following Lord Muruga’s chariot (T: ther), heading towards the house of Muruga (kovil Cavadee).The temple is often at the foothill of a mountain to make the journey more tedious. Devotees chant ‘Muruga, Arogara, Vel Vel’. Some female devotee may go into a trance, while some will carry sacred milk in a brass pot (pal kudam) on their heads. Miraculously this milk does not curdle even in the scorching sun. The young girls perform ‘kummi’ and ‘kolaattmt’, group dances, clapping with each other’s palms or striking with sticks respectively, while religious songs are being sung in a chorus to the glory of the Lord. The conches are blown; drums are beaten and cymbals are played in rhythm. In this way the pain of penance and austerity is decreased. Those who cannot bear the pain only offer flowers (archunai) and young girls and women either pierce their tongue with single needle or tie up the mouth with a scarf, which stops one from talking and eating.

On reaching the temple the devotees prostrate themselves at the feet of Muruga, light oil or camphor lamps, burn incense and make offerings of coconut, fruits, sweets and flowers. At this stage the priest will remove all the vels from the swollen and taught skin of all devotees one by one. Surprisingly, no blood oozes nor do devotees scream in pain. The sacred ash will be sprinkled on everybody amidst shouts of Arogara (glory of god). After this, the priest pours milk from the ‘sombus’ brought by the devotees on the crown of the deity and a little is returned to them as charanamrita, which is shared by everybody with deep veneration. The priest on behalf of all Cavadees will offer prayers to Muruga, with a contented smile on His lips. He will chant the Muruga Maha mantra:

Om Thatpurushaya Vidhmahe; Maha Senaya Dhimahi,Thanno Skanda Prachodhayath.

Om Thatpurushaya Vidhmahe, Maha Senaya Dhimahi, Thanno Shanmuga Prachodhayath.

In a corner of the temple, women devotees will prepare vegetarian food and offer prasad as annadanam to all hungry and exhausted participants, towards the end. In the evening, a big ceremony is held (T: maha aaraadamai) to request Lord Muruga to bestow His Grace on all, irrespective of caste and creed. Next morning, devotees again gather at the temple to take part in a brief ceremony to bring down the flag (T: kodi irakkam). Thus ends the elaborate and austere festival called Cavadee.


Religious: Indeed, Cavadee, a ceremony accompanied by what may appear as strange tribal rituals but are not, originates from an ancient Tamil legend of Idumban and a great guru Agattiyar. It relates to human endurance, patience and perseverance and a devotee’s craving to achieve his goal by an extreme form of physical, psychical and spiritual determination. Similar penance by mortification of flesh is seen in the Charak festival of Bengal, held on Chaitra sankranti to glorify Lord Shiva. The devotee is hung by a steel hook, pierced in the skin of the back and is rotated in the air around a central pole.

Mythological: Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati had Kumara their youngest son, through a boon conferred by Lord Brahma the Creator, to become the slayer of formidable demons such as Soorapdaman and Tarakasura, who were devastating the three worlds. In the famous Tiruk Kural there is a legend about Muruga. The most revered Vedic sage, one of the Saptarishis, Agasthya (T: Agattiyar), author of Agastha samhita, once instructed his powerful disciple Idumban (T: arrogant; obstinate; formidable) to fetch the summits of two mountains named Shiva and Shaktigiri to his abode. Agam in Tamil means ‘inside’ while iyar means ‘belongs to’ i.e. one who belongs to the soul. Vedic Agasthya was thus none but the Agattiyar of Tamil.

The devoted Idumban carried those two huge Parbats on two ends of a wooden bar on his shoulder like a Cavadee. Meanwhile Muruga being defeated in a bet by his witty and intelligent elder brother Ganesha, took refuge in Tiru Avinankudi at Adivaram i.e. foothill of Shivagiri Parbat. On his return journey, Idumban met with Muruga disguised as a little boy, who entered in one Parbat to make it too heavy to carry. The arrogant Idumban engaged in a fierce battle with Muruga, and was pierced by His mighty spear to death. Then blessed by Murugan for his extreme devotion, he regained his life. Since then Muruga became famous among devotees who, carrying cavadees with utmost devotion up to His temple, will gain His wisdom, kindness and blessings.

Historical: Historically god Karthikeya was immensely popular in the Indian subcontinent. One of the major Puranas was dedicated in his name as Skanada Purana. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (Sloka 24, Ch 10) proclaims ‘among generals, I am Skanda, the lord of war, ’ thus emphasizing His omnipresence.

The story of Muruga in Hindu scriptures can be traced back to the first millennium BCE. There are references to Subramanya in Kautilya’s Arthsastra, in the Patanjali Yoga sutra, in the famous epic poem of Kumarsambhava by the great poet Kalidasa and in Mricchakatika by Bhasa in the 2nd century BC. The inscriptions of Skanda in Kushanas’s (Emperor Kanishka, 1st century AD) gold coin or during Gupta dynasty (Chandragupta Maurya, 2nd century BC) bears testimony to Muruga’s antiquity. Even during Adi Sankaracharya’s time, this deity occupied a prominent position among Hindus.

Astrological: The astrologers often prescribe a special prayer to Lord Muruga to pacify angry Mars and to ameliorate its ill effects. Muruga confers wisdom, courage, power to enable one to annihilate the destructive forces of formidable foes.

‘Seeing is believing,’ as explained in the gospel of Mathew regarding the miracle of Jesus makes skeptical Peter walk on the water of Tiberius and gave the sermon: You of little faith! Why did you doubt?

The miracle of Muruga’s divine grace mitigates the pain of mortification of the flesh, keeps the stale milk uncurdled, and makes the fasting devotee’s face radiant. Lastly, it fulfils the desires of a genuine devotee who keeps his body and soul free from any sin during the observance period of thirty days of penance.

Dr Rabindranath Das is Professor, Department of Medicine, at the SSR Medical College, Belle Rive

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