This paper explores some aspects of Tai Pucam as it is celebrated in Malaysia. In essence I will argue that Tai Pucam reflects a fragile concept of Malaysian Hindu solidarity within a multi-ethnic society. In the opening section I have explored ethnicity in Malaysia and the Indian experience of the politics of ethnicity. I have then traced the various strands of Malaysian Hinduism, and the complex reconfigurations which have occurred since World War II. Then follows a brief description of the mythology and structure of Tai Pucam at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, and of the kavati ritual which lies at its heart. In conclusion I have suggested that Tai Pucam provides layers of meaning for Malaysian Hindus, and signals a variety of allegiances, and that nearly all segments of Malaysian Hindu society attain representation at Tai Pucam under the overarching rubric of Murukan worship.
I should state from the outset that I have a strong personal commitment to both Tai Pucam and Murukan. My interest in Tai Pucam has lead to a series of pilgrimages to Batu Caves, Penang and Palani as a participant. My views, therefore, are shaped by two major influences - firstly my role as an "insider", albeit that of a Western pilgrim, and secondly, the spirit of scholarly inquiry. Tai Pucam, Murukan worship, and Hinduism in Malaysia are all topics of considerable complexity, and it is impossible to reduce the sprawling dimensions of these subjects any to manageable proportions without some simplifications and generalizations. These issues are the subject of postgraduate study and will be explored in greater detail in that work..
Among Malaysian Hindus, Tai Pucam is usually described as a festival commemorating granting of the Sakti Vel, 'electric spear' or vetrivel) to Murugan by Parvati, consort of Siva, at the outset of his campaign to defeat Surapadma, head of the asuras (demonic forces) .
At the cosmological level, this myth represents nothing less than the process of phenomenological atrophy and dissolution, and its subsequent reconstitution and renewal. The Divine has two essential states. Being, the passive, is known as Siva, and Becoming, the dynamic, is known as Sakti. These are popularly envisaged as "masculine" and "feminine". Without the feminine aspect, Siva is remote and unknowable, and without the masculine aspect Sakti has no existence. Thus the bestowal by Sakti (Parvati) of the Vel, the instrument by which the cosmic harmony is re-established, upon (the Siva created) Murukan, represents a manifest fusion of the Divine's absolute and generative powers. Murukan and the Vel in conjunct ion implies "...the integrating of dualities in a manner consistent with Saiva thought…. ... Murugan and his lance are Siva-Sakti, the cosmic pair".
At the human level, the battlefield is internalised, and the Vel becomes a symbol of the means to spiritual liberation. The "birth" of Murukan is recognition of the yogic grace extended by Siva. Murukan is created by Siva to destroy the bondages of ignorance imposed by the individual ego, but is furnished with the means to do this (the Sakti Vel) by Parvati. Murukan is thus perceived as the principle of Siva-Sakti in action within the substance of the mind.
But as Zvelebil points out, all Tamil mythology is multifocal and thus interpretable on many planes, namely as a story, metaphorically, and as a cosmological expression of metaphysical principles and divine truths. My field researches suggest that many devotees simply view the commemoration of the acquisition of the Vel as a propitious time to resolve personal (karmic) difficulties or to "repay" the deity for major adjustments in family or social life.
Tai Pucam is celebrated on the day in which the asterism Pucam is on the ascendant in the month of Tai (January-February). The presiding star is the planet Brihaspati (Jupiter) which is considered beneficent . Of especial significance is that Pucam falls on or near the full moon day. In the Murukan tradition, the full moon implies completion, fulfilment and total maturity in powers . Moreover the asterism Pucam is reputed to be that of tantapani, which either represents a staff, suggesting either the role of ascetic, or a military leader, thus implicitly linking the relationship between ascetic and military leader. ("The latter subdues the enemy with an army; the former subdues the passions with a staff" . Murukan is known as Tanta Yutapani at Palani, and is represented as an ascetic.
Tai Pucam: Basic Structure
Tai Pucam was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1888. According to popular tradition, this was initiated by Mr Kayaroganam Pillai, founder of the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil Devasthanam, who dreamed that Sakti requested him to build a shrine for her son, Murukan, on top of the hill at Batu Caves (Neelvani). The Devasthanam continues to manage the Batu Caves complex as well as the city temple and retains responsibility for organizing Tai Pucam.
Tai Pucam in Malaysia is staged over a three day period. The Festival commences with the early morning departure of the murti of Murukan from the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to his home in the mountains at Batu Caves, a distance of 12.8 kilometres. Despite the pre-dawn start, a large crowd (police estimates range to 150,000, but unofficial sources place the figure much higher), turns out to accompany the chariot on its processional route
The silver chariot is preceded by religious dignities, and is accompanied by musicians (including nadeswaram players and drummers), kolattam (dance) groups, and a bevy of religious groups, many singing bhajans and chanting, others distributing food and drinks among the crowd. Several devotees will also bear kavatis throughout the procession.
Upon arrival at Batu Caves, Murukan is transferred to a prepared platform in a downstairs shrine, and a special installation is performed. Later the golden vel from the chariot is presented to the chief pantaram from the Sri Subrahmanya Swami Kovil who carries the vel upstairs to the hill shrine within the main cave.
The bulk of the second day is devoted to formal acts of worship and service. While the attention of the vast crowd is focused upon the vibrant spectacle of thousands of devotees who fulfil vows by taking kavatis, there are others who meet spiritual obligations in less obvious ways. These may involve manning pantals, serving meals and drinks, or providing first aid and other essential services.
The third day of Tai Pucam is devoted to the return journey of Murukan to the Sri Mariamman Kovil. Between 8 and 9 am the golden vel is removed from the hill shrine and returned to the murti downstairs. Murugan is then re-installed in the silver chariot, and leaves Batu Caves. Because of traffic restrictions the procession halts for most of the day at the Sentul area, now in the process of redevelopment, but once a working class Indian suburb. At 6.30 pm the murti is once again placed within the chariot. A large and intense crowd accompanies the chariot to the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil. As with the outward journey the chariot makes frequent stops to meet the needs of devotees, and generally does not reach the Kovil until 1 am.