KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 18 ― Hundreds of Hindu devotees marked Thaipusam at the Sri Subramaniar Temple in Batu Caves here this morning even as the threat of the Omicron Covid-19 variant loomed large.
The sounds from the tavil (Indian drum) and nadaswaram (Indian trumpets) accompanied the devotees carrying their milk offerings up the colourful stairs to Lord Muruga and chanting “Vel Vel Muruga” or “Kandanukku Arogara” lent an air of festivity as the sun rose among the limestone hills.
However, it was still a quieter and more subdued sight when compared to the hundreds of thousands who used to throng the temple complex in the pre-pandemic years.
Despite the reduced numbers and regulations in place to check the spread of the coronavirus, many devotees at the Batu Caves temple complex welcomed the government SOPs and said the atmosphere made them feel closer to God.
For Muralikrishnaa Gopalakrishnan, a sound engineer hailing from Penang, the smaller crowd meant less noise and distraction, allowing him and his family to fully immerse themselves in their prayers.
“It's much more quiet, so spiritually, you feel better because sometimes the glaring noise can be very distracting.
“I like the SOPs ― and because they organised it into sessions, there are no rushed feelings. So far everything is good this year. This SOPs is a good thing,” he told Malay Mail.
He said that unlike in his hometown, where Thaipusam is celebrated in a big open space, the cramped and crowded Batu Caves would only cause more trouble should these SOPs were not put in place.
His only message to the government is allow prayers to be held continuously throughout the three days, which would give more Hindus in the country a chance to visit and pray at the temples during this auspicious time.
Another worshipper Laveena Jayabarathi ― who attended prayers with her family, as they do every year ― shared similar sentiments with Muralikrishnaa.
“When it’s crowded, you get pushed around a lot. This time around, devotees are more focused.
“You can actually connect more with God. You can go around at your own pace and take in the space and freedom. There is a nice balance to it,” the 25-year-old said.
Laveena’s brother, Vinod, who owns his own business dealing with insurance, gave a big thumbs up to the Health Ministry and other government agencies involved in ensuring that this auspicious day goes off without a hitch and making sure everyone is safe amid Covid-19 Omicron fears.
“I want to give props to the Health Ministry and the government. They started this very good SOP, it’s very organised. Even though it's much more sombre ― as last time you had the urumi, the drums and massive celebrations ― but the vibe and energy is still there.
“If that’s what the government agencies and MoH think is best (the SOPs), I feel it’s the right decision because they are always putting our safety first.
“We cannot be selfish ― even though this day is very important to Hindus. We have to be concerned about everyone’s safety,” he said to Malay Mail.
For 43-year-old Kavitha Nadesan, who works in the oil and gas industry, she was initially cynical about the SOPs announced by the government, but found herself surprised by the ease for those who have come to do their prayers at the holy grounds.
“I was initially sceptical about the SOPs because I thought it would be very tight, but then I managed to get all my prayers done within the hour with these SOPs. So to me, it was a very good experience this year compared to the years before,” she told Malay Mail.
Kavitha added that crowd control SOPs should actually be the way forward and implemented in the years to come.
“I think they should actually control this way of moving forward for Thaipusam. The maximum of 9,000 people is good. They can increase it slightly when Covid-19 is gone but it depends on the situation,” she added.
However, she said that the last minute banning of kavadi processions was an ill-made decision, suggesting that the government should have better understood the importance of the kavadi.
“[The] kavadi is actually a major part of Thaipusam. People make their vows, and they go through a month of fasting and to fulfil their vows, they need to carry the kavadi. So, just imagine those who have committed themselves to their vows, now they are left hanging,” she said.
“The cancellation of kavadi is actually quite sad because I'm sure lots of Hindu’s have made vows and could not fulfil it. I think the government should consider the importance of kavadi, and allow certain numbers of them to happen,” she said.
Muralikrishnaa also shared the same thought, adding that the kavadi is probably the most beautiful part of the whole celebration.
“That one was a bit disappointing because the beautiful part of Thaipusam is the kavadi, especially the ones you see at night, with all the lights,” he said.
He added that he also understood the plight of kavadi makers, as he has experience in building one and understands the cost of such an undertaking.
“The last minute cancellation is actually very painful for those who actually make the kavadi because they are very expensive to make.
“I know this because I've made a kavadi. So it's disappointing that the government did not plan this earlier because this is one of the biggest Indian celebrations in Malaysia, they should have done it a bit earlier,” he said.
On January 12, National Unity Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique announced the SOP which among others stipulated that only the paal koodam (milk offering processions), prayer activities and chariot processions would be allowed but the kavadi ceremony was still not permitted during this year’s festival.
She said paal koodam was allowed from tomorrow to January 19 with the number of devotees allowed to be set according to the respective temples, while prayer ceremonies would be held in sessions and movement of chariot processions should follow the set SOP.
Today, 18 prayer sessions for the presiding diety Lord Murugan from 5am to 11am will be held at the Batu Caves temple complex.
Only 500 people will be allowed in for each session, to avoid overcrowding, a miniscule number compared with the pre-Covid days.
Thaipusam at the Waterfall Hilltop Temple in Penang
Thaipusam celebrations in Penang was a subdued affair with visibly fewer devotees at the Waterfall Hilltop Temple this morning compared to the pre-pandemic years.
The absence of thaneer panthal stalls and kavadi bearers along with strict SOPs presented a controlled and quieter celebrations at the temple grounds.
Devotees were also required to queue behind barriers set up by the police and had to go through seven different posts before they enter the temple grounds and climbed the 513 steps up to the hilltop temple.
According to temple committee chairman Datuk R. Subramaniam, devotees started queuing outside the temple as early as 3am.
“We open the gates at 5am and the police had set up seven posts and barriers to ensure proper control of the crowd,” he said.
He said only groups of 150 devotees were allowed inside the temple grounds at any one time and each devotee is required to scan their MySejahtera and body temperature before entering.
At one point, the queue snaked all the way down Jalan Air Terjun and some devotees had to queue for over two hours.
Among the devotees are Agilan Velu and his family, who arrived at the temple at 7.30am.
The 46-year-old engineer from Bukit Mertajam said they had to queue for about one hour 30 minutes before they made their way up the steps to the temple.
“The temple management did a very good job in ensuring everyone comply with the SOPs,” he said.
He said the environment is different this time around due to the SOPs as there were no kavadi bearers or breaking of coconuts.
“We understand the need for the SOPs, it is for the safety of everyone,” he said.
He said what is most important is that devotees are allowed to conduct their prayers at the temple and get blessings from Lord Muruga this year.
While kavadi bearers were prohibited, those carrying the milk offerings to Lord Muruga were allowed this year. Even so, the number of bearers were noticeably reduced compared to previous years.
Like the Hindu celebrants at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Penang worshippers interviewed by Malay Mail expressed gladness that the SOPs were being followed and did not mind the strict rules.
“We are quite relieved that everyone followed the SOPs as this is for our safety,” R. Yoga, 36, said.
He hoped that next year, Thaipusam celebrations will be back to the lively festivities of the past.
In previous years, Thaipusam celebrations in Penang were held on a massive scale, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the Waterfall Hilltop Temple.
Thousands of kavadi and paal kudam bearers would also make their way to the temple while over 150 panthals stalls would line the main road outside the temple previously.
Penang’s North East district police chief ACP Soffian Santong said the devotees that arrived at the temple from 5am up to 10.30am had followed the SOPs in an orderly manner.
“There were no unwanted incidents so far and the temple conducts sanitisation every 30 minutes,” he said.
He said there are also devotees from Selangor, Kedah and Perak, not only from Penang, but all of them have cooperated in complying with the SOPs.
He said the queue to enter the temple are in one line of about 200 devotees and the temple committee made sure than a maximum 200 devotees are allowed inside at any one time.
“They ensured that the devotees are allowed to enter in stages and not in one large group to control the number of devotees within the temple grounds,” he said.
To Hindus, the Thaipusam festival in the month of “Thai”, which is the 10th month in the Tamil calendar, commemorates the event where Lord Murugan received the sacred spear from his mother Goddess Parvati, to eliminate the evil demon, Soorapadman, and restore prosperity and human wellbeing.
Celebrating Thaipusam in Perak
Thaipusam celebrations at the Kallumalai Arulmigu Subramaniar Temple in Gunung Cheroh, Perak here were just as subdued as elsewhere in the country.
However, in contrast to their counterparts in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, devotees here were more vocal about their dissatisfaction with the SOPs imposed.
However, they were happy they could finally go to the temple and fulfil their prayers and vows compared to last year.
When Malay Mail visited the temple this morning, there were no thaneer panthal (refreshment stalls) set up on its grounds.
There were no kavadi bearers either, since they had been banned.
A group of policemen and local enforcement officers were on duty to keep a watchful eye and ensure compliance with SOPs.
R. Indhumathi, an instructor in the Royal Malaysian Air Force, said that the Thaipusam celebration here was moderate as compared to celebration before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This year the celebration was very dull. There is no much excitement.
“But, we are still happy as they allowed us to come to the temple as compared to the last two years, where we were not allowed to come to the temple at all for any prayers,” she told Malay Mail.
Indhumathi said she had no trouble following the SOPs, but expressed her disappointment as devotees were only given a short period of time to spend inside the temple.
“After presenting paal koodam, we were immediately told to leave the temple. It would be nice if they give us a bit more time to pray,” she said.
Another devotee, who only wanted to be named as Nagaindran, also said that this year’s Thaipusam celebration was uneventful.
“We usually see a lot of kavadi and stalls along the temple for Thaipusam, but this year nothing sort of that.
“These are the main attractions for Thaipusam, people will do shopping at the stalls and we could see colourful kavadi. We really missed that,” said the 25-year-old.
However, Nagaindran, who is an operator in a company, said that he is happy that the temple allowed devotees to perform the hair offering ceremony this year.
“I had this wish to perform hair offering for Thaipusam since 2020, but only managed to offer it this year. The hair offering process was smooth and it was well organised by the temple staff,” he said.
S. Mogan, a medical officer, expressed his disappointment as he could not bring his children to the temple after the temple authorities banned those under 18 from entering the temple due to Covid-19.
“I came with my wife to the temple today. I feel a satisfaction after fulfilling my vows and prayers for Thaipusam after three years, but at the same time a bit disappoint as we could not celebrate it as a whole family.
“Our children are sadder than us as they could not follow us to the temple,” he said.
Similarly, T. Nagin, a supervisor in a private company, also expressed his disappointment with the decision to ban children from temples as he has to leave his 12-year-old kid at home.
“There is a lot of restrictions for this Thaipusam, but it’s okay. It is better than not to be able to celebrate it at all,” he said.
Another devotee, who only wanted to be named as Chitra, said that she could not present the paal koodam together with her husband.
“We have to take turns and to do it separate as one of us need to take care of our two children aged five and six, since they are not allowed into the temple.
“We can’t leave our children at our baby sitter’s house as they are also Hindu and they need to go to the temple as well.
“And obviously we can’t leave the children at home or at the car alone. It is not safe. So this is why we bring along our children together,” she said.
Despite the ban on the children and teenagers to visit the temple for Thaipusam, a few devotees still bring along their children.
However, the temple authorities did not allow any children from entering the temple and a few children were seen praying from outside the temple.
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