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Unspoken burdens: reflections on ‘Kavadi’

Kavitha Karuum on Latha’s story of ritual and minority voices

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Published: 24 Dec 2020


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The smell of sambrani permeates the air along Serangoon Road. Men clad in yellow shorts or loin-cloths and bodies covered with the holy ash which is thiruneer1 carry majestic dome-shaped alagu2 or silavu kavadis, adorned with peacock feathers. A steel belt helps support the weight of the kavadi and the structure’s steel spikes pierce deeply into the skin of the kavadi carrier. The devotee endures the pain to fulfil his vow of penance or gratitude, walking slowly from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to Arulmigu Thendayuthabani Temple in Tank Road. 

All these sights and sounds will not materialise on Thaipusam in January 2021. For the first time in decades, kavadi will not be allowed and the procession will not take place in 2021.  COVID-19 has claimed yet another casualty. The Tamil proverb, “One realises the value of the shade only in the sun’s heat,” comes to mind.  

Writing this piece seemed very ironic in these circumstances. As the Tamil community quietly readies itself to face a previously unthinkable period without Thaipusam, Latha’s short story Kavadi assumes greater significance as a historical record of the festival in Singapore. Kavadi talks about the traditions and social practices associated with Thaipusam and their subsequent erosion over time. At the same time, it questions gender roles, social dynamics and class, and gives an indication of the conflicting emotions Thaipusam evokes in the Tamil community. 

Thaipusam is mostly seen as a festival in which males take centre stage as kavadi carriers. Women are not allowed to witness and participate in the Idumban3 prayers which take place before the festival and they are barred from carrying the huge silavu kavadi. Though thousands of women carry the paalkudam4 and, in some instances, paal kavadi5, they remain peripheral or supporting figures in the festival. Their integral role in the festival largely goes unrecognised. 

Like every festival of the Hindu/Tamil/Indian tradition, the women of the household carry the burden of seeing the kavadi procession through, by giving their time and labour. They play key roles in preparing for the fast of the devotee, the organisation of the pooja or worship rituals, the cleaning of the house, and coordinating the logistics of the kavadi procession. On the Thaipusam day, one can see them singing hymns cheerfully and determinedly to keep up the spirits of the kavadi-carrying devotee. 

Latha’s Kavadi can be seen as the story of one such woman. Aatha, only identified by her kinship role as a grandmother, is the protagonist of the story. Most likely in her last days, the frail Aatha desires to attend the kavadi procession and carry the dome-shaped alagu / silvau kavadi at least once. Watching bare-bodied men bear the pain of pierced spikes, she too longs to get piercings done but is denied her wish by her father, an atheist who does not subscribe to the practice of Thaipusam, followed by her husband. Her rich recollections of the kavadi procession, her relationship with the kavadi, traditions associated with the kavadi and the changes in these traditions form the rest of the story. 

Aatha has a subordinate position in the patriarchal familial structure, like countless Tamil women in Singapore past and present. Controlled first by her father and then her husband, in the last days of her life, she is let down by her body and failing health, leaving her dependent on her grandchildren. She yearns for a territory that is forbidden to females, to carry the kavadi, pierce her body and participate in the Idumban poojai (prayer) she helps prepare. Aatha’s desire to carry the kavadi is to break into the male realm and break the gender disparity, to prove that she too has the strength to bear the burden of the kavadi and wants to lose herself in the piercing pain from its spikes.

“In fact, rather than the kavadi itself, this desire to experience this pain is the crux of the story,” Latha tells me in an interview. “Like most of my work, the actual story lies in the innocuous details and what is left unsaid.” she continues. 

As one of her translators, I agree. The stories are never what they seem. On one level, Latha’s stories mostly deal with a marginalised minority community situated within the minorities. Her protagonists are usually women in the minority Tamil community struggling against a patriarchal society to create their identities, lives and their place in society. The title of her Tamil collection, from which six stories are used in The Goddess in the Living Room, is Naan Kolai Seiyyum Penngal or The Women I Murder. In her words, “(I write about)…. the everyday murder of women, the countless deaths they die through every humiliations and micro-aggressions, the erasure of their identities.” 

In her childhood, Aatha is powerless against her father who is a non-believer. She married her husband, an ardent kavadi lover, in an act of defiance. However, the same societal forces that controlled her then control her in adulthood. She is subordinate to her husband, not an equal partner in a relationship. Though Aatha and her husband are ardent believers and follow the traditions of Thaipusam, they are unable to instil the same in their family. Aatha’s children and grandchildren family do not carry the kavadi and they do not have a keen interest in procession, marking the erosion of traditional practices in a modern, urban environment.   

Is Kavadi the story of an oppressed woman breaking away from the shackles of tradition, denying the source of her pain, power over her in final days? Like Latha’s many other stories, is it of women of lower and middle socio-economic status trying to ensure their existence? Yes, but as mentioned earlier, there is more left unsaid and that is where the true story lies.

Kavadi tells not just the story of a woman but also that of a troubled community. More often than not, minority social groups find their voices in the ceremonial and the arts. They channel the power and the volume of their voice in ceremonies and beliefs, thereby making them integral parts of the community. Likewise, the Thaipusam festival is a fundamental part of the Tamil community in Singapore and its neighbour Malaysia. Through the piercings of the Vel6 and spikes and literally carrying the immense burden of the kavadi, the voice of the community rings out clear in the public domain once a year. 

Kavadi conveys the emotions of an individual and the emotions of a community. It subtly tries to explain why the community tries to dissolve itself in the huge crowd that is Thaipusam. Thaipusam, in this region, is not merely a festival of devotion but has a deeper social significance. It is the primary outlet in which a community that has muted its voice, speaks loud and clear. While Thaipusam reaffirms the Singapore Tamils’ connections with their roots, traditions and their memories of their cultural homeland, Tamil Nadu, this festival is also the Tamil community’s vehicle for continuously emphasising to itself and others that it is rooted here and belongs to this land.  It is the one time that a community comes out in the open and exhibits its nature and shows the rest of the world both its pain and its strength. It is also why the restrictions placed on playing musical instruments and the tightening of the rules of the kavadi procession has irked the community so severely in the past.  

Readers usually see Kavadi as a nostalgic tribute to the Thaipusam tradition in Singapore. That is why I am taken aback when Latha says her story instead reflects the changing societal function of Thaipusam.

Why do people carry 20-30 kg kavadis with piercings of the alagu and the vel? I see these acts as physical expressions of the Tamil community’s inner strength. As a minority group, the Tamil community in Singapore has been through its fair share to mould itself to this land and it has worked hard to pull itself up. There is a lot of emotional and social pain involved in this continuous change. When people like Aatha (the protagonist) have carried immense burdens on their shoulders, why do still they need the physical kavadi to symbolise their suffering? Thaipusam celebrations and the kavadi procession will be around in Singapore for time to come but the community’s relationship with it might change.

Latha

In Kavadi, Latha expresses the pointlessness of the female protagonist's desire to carry a kavadi and seems to suggest modernisation might compel the Tamil community to find other means of expressing its voice.  

As a translator, friend, and a fellow Singaporean Tamil, I am inclined to disagree. Thaipusam and the kavadi are integral to the Tamil community and go to the core of what it stands for. Each devotee, when walking in the heart of the city, retraces a journey of grit and transformationof the individual, the family and the community. The weight of the kavadi and its ensuing burden are reminders of the labour of countless forefathers and foremothers to make a meaningful life here, in this place they have made their own. Each year, when the devotees fulfil the vows to Murugan and other deities in the Thaipusam procession, they also fulfil another vowa declaration of their existence, their allegiance and their belonging to this country and this community. It is my hope that, in 2022 and beyond, the community will be able to resume this pilgrimage of love and renew its vows yet again.


Footnotes

Thiruneer, also known as vibhuthi, is grey ash traditionally made from dried wood and herbs that are used in a homam or sacrificial fire. Hindus usually apply it on their foreheads to revere the Hindu deity Shiva. Thiruneer is also sometimes applied on the arms, chest and the back.   

2 The alagu kavadi, also called the silavu kavadi, is a dome-shaped structure with four or more steel arches. Each arch is connected to a rod which in turn is supported by a steel belt worn by the kavadi carrier. Skewers or spikes run along each arch and they are pierced into the flesh of the devotee. Each kavadi is at least 1.5 metres tall and is adorned at the top and on the sides with peacock feathers, flowers and other décor items.  

3 Idumban poojai is a prayer ceremony conducted before and after Thaipusam day and is dedicated to the mythical character Idumban, an asura or a celestial being commonly identified as a demon. Legend has it that Idumban was ordered by his teacher, Sage Agasthya, to carry two hills to his abode. Idumban carried two hills on a pole over his shoulder, with one hill on each end. After a divine encounter and a losing battle with the Hindu deity Muruga, Idumban became a guard of Murugan shrines. The makeshift structure he carried was the first kavadi and he is considered to be the first Murugan devotee to carry a kavadi. As such, it is customary for all kavadi carriers to pray to Idumban one or days before Thaipusam. The prayer ceremony is usually held at one’s home and only males are allowed to participate.

4 The paal kudam or the milk pot is usually carried by female devotees and children. The offering consists of a stainless-steel pot filled with milk; its mouth is covered with a yellow cloth. Devotees carry the pot on their heads and at the end of the procession, the milk is handed over to the temple as an offering to Murugan. The stature of the deity is given sacred baths with this milk offering, as part of the prayers.  

5 The paal kavadi is the simplest form of the kavadi. The wooden structure consists of an arch connected by a pole. Devotees carry the pole over their shoulders. Milk pots and peacock feathers are usually tied to each end of the paal kavadi, with an image of a Hindu deity placed at the centre.

6 The Vel, or the spear, is considered to be the weapon of the deity Murugan in Hindu mythology. During Thaipusam, some devotees pierce their skin, cheeks and tongues as an offering or a penance, while carrying the kavadi or the milk pot. 

Contributed by:

Kavitha Karuum

Kavitha Karuum is a translator and a former arts administrator and journalist.


little red comma

Singapore literature, reimagined. little red comma comprises digital adaptations of six diverse literary works by Arthur Yap, Latha, Melissa De Silva, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Samuel Lee and Yeng Pway Ngon, released from Aug to Nov 2020, as well as stories, essays and podcasts inspired by these literary works.

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