Thaipusam as most of us know it to be, is one of the most anticipated festivals conducted by Hindus(namely Tamils) in Singapore. Year after year hundreds of thousands of devotees walk from Perumal Temple(Petain Road) to Thandayuthapani Temple(Tank Road) temple. There is more to my entry than just to give my non Hindu readers an insight to the festival but before that, for those who are not in the know, Thaipusam – is celebrated as it is meant to be Lord Murugan’s birthday as well as the day his mother, Shakthi gives him his Vel. There are also other stories for the day of Thaipusam such as that it was the day Iduman carried a paal kavadi as well as that it was the day that Lord Shiva would dance at Chidambaram. If you would like more information, just google it and you’d get (almost) all of life’s answers.
Nevertheless, many of us are familiar with the tradition of Thaipusam and for many years now I have participated in this event as a Paalkudam(milkpot) carrier in the morning and later come back to watch in awe the beautiful kavadis. Over the last 2 years, I have had the pleasure of doing my part in helping out for this event by volunteering with the University’s Hindu Society. Last year I spent much of my time merely giving out plastic bags but this year was a slightly more interesting and eyeopening experience.
As a Hindu, it pains me to see that there still are many internal conflicts and divides when organising an event as large as this. My first grievance was this – In the wee hours of the day, while walking to the temple, I find myself walking slower and slower as I reach Tank Road temple. Its the same issue practically every year – Chetty kavadis must enter first. I understand that the temple is funded mainly by Chettiars and I am not too sure about this but maybe they built it too. But, when you claim to be in a country where race and religion seeks no divides, its a little ironic that caste divides would come into play no? I believe that God is there for everyone to pray and that as a Hindu I am entitled to pray in any temple and no one has the right to stop me from entering because another person decides to have a prayer. For a group of say 50-200 Chettiars to complete their prayers, the rest of us “humble beings” have to stand outside with our pots of milks and kavadis and wait for at least 30-45 minutes. Please remember, I am in no way saying that I dislike Chettiars or that I feel like they are horrible people. I know many Chetty people and I have nothing against them, but perhaps the Hindu Endowment Board should give us a fair explanation as to why they have decided we are just not that worthy of entering the temple early. Once again, I speak from a lay perspective and what I say is what I have directly felt and experienced.
Secondly, after my own prayers and resting home, I came back to Tank Road to volunteer my services in both marshalling and helping the devotees by offering them plastic bags. It isn’t easy and sometimes I wish people would cut the volunteers some slack. Lets all be a little more sensitive to realise that it is virtually impossible for 1 person to give out 100 bags in 20 seconds so stop yelling at us. We don’t get paid to get our hands groped and raped you know. And even that is fine, the bags are for your shoes and if it doesn’t fit we really cannot help you but give you a second bag – if you truly felt the pinch, then you should smack yourself for not bringing one in the first place right? Or just go leave your shoes outside and let them go missing or something. Ok I sound evil but the point is, many many people were acting as if we take money for giving out plastic bags. Nevertheless, let me now come to my greatest of all grievances.
Number three, after there were no more plastic bags to give, the rest of us volunteers were told to stand with the police officers who were on the other side of the barricades. Its bad enough that we don’t get a holiday for Thaipusam. Its bad enough that many instruments are disallowed. Its bad enough that Kavadis cannot go above a certain level nor can thangkis(the piercings through the mouth) have to of a certain length. Its bad enough that you need to undergo several restrictions before you can do what you consider YOUR personal dues for God, now you can’t bring any musical instruments too.
Firstly, we celebrate Thaipusam once a year and if on this one occasion too you have to be held back and restricted I think it’s pretty ridiculous. Its ironic even, that while some complain that Hinduism is eroding slowly and no one follows any traditions, the one tradition we do follow, is taken away. Indeed, I understand where the policeforce and higher authorities are coming from – for many many years, the ones who make the most noise are ofen the ones who wreck havoc and are more prone to getting into fights. Its their acquired experience that in the past years that this happens. But how on earth does that allow you to assume that all people with musical instruments are going to wreck havoc?
Secondly, music has always been a part of our tradition – fair enough there are lots of these people who take it way too overboard with the whistling and the oddest of oddest thaipusam songs – BUT why ban even the traditional instruments such as the thavil and the mattalam. SO does that mean that next year, if you decide to make loud cackles with your mouth, they’d attempt to cut off your tongues and throats and ask you to collect them at Cantonment the next day?
Thirdly, how come there are few restrictions made during Hungry Ghost festivals, Chikgway(pardon my murderous spelling but its that auction sort of event they have) and other festivals when the lion dancers hit their drums from their lorries as they drive to their various areas. Who gets to decide which music is unruly? Who says that the sound of the Urumi is unruly but that the music of the Nadaswaram in the temple is okay?
Fourth, if musical instruments are going to be seized, this should be made known from the start. Many of these people have had the experience of getting their Ponggols and their drumsets confiscated but its highly unknown for mattalams and thavils to considered in that same rung. Rules were being changed every half and hour and I say this with the confidence of someone who was standing near the people who were getting the instructions. In the morning, musical instruments were not forbidden, in the afternoon they were seized and people had to leave their IC numbers and come collect them the next day and at night, the musicians had to leave their kavadis and follow us volunteers through a separate path to the front of the temple and wait till the kavadis came there to dance. Where is the consistency?
Fifth, what is a kavadi without music? I understand that many people really abuse their freedom and they play too long, dance too much and jam the rest of the Kavadis. But, how do you manage to solve the problem if the musicians are allowed back in and just to annoy officials, the kavadis dance and dance and dance and dance right at the steps of the temple further jamming people up?
As a volunteer I saw for myself the way people were being handled and I was rather jaded by the entire event. I saw a man,dead drunk walking right across the policemen and no one moved forward to do anything – he caused many jams and was shouting away but no one dared hold him. Yes they didn’t. I saw a fight right in front of the temple – 2 kavadis having a clash. One of the volunteers had to shout through the barricades. The policeman approaches us later to ask what happened once its all over and once we say its settled, he asks us if we want a drink. Yes, a drink I am certain that is going to solve the problem. I saw one authority allow 2 Caucasians through the barricades straight to the temple while mothers, children and even people with kids in prams had to walk the same route. Why?
I was very disturbed having to be part of this control agent, stopping kavadis and I felt their frustration as they had their musical instruments and musicians taken aside. When they fought back to the police, I totally understood their position. Indeed there are many troublemakers amidst them but instead of assuming that those who play music are troublemakers, you should have set out other manners to target these troublemakers. Furthermore, what is Thaipusam without the entertainment these clowns provide us with their fashion sense and their interesting pickup lines. I felt apologetic every single time I had to follow one of these people to the front of the line. This year it was such a silent Thaipusam and perhaps the police force and HEB might think they did a splendid job at crowd control, but one year there is going to be virtually no one coming for Thaipusam and don’t any of you dare complain that Hindus in Singapore are not pious or are forgetting their roots – because you have managed to drive them to it.
Yes I know there are many of our people who are really too much. I have heard of many cases of eve-teasing(aiyoh so Tamil padam) and other unpleasant stuff during Thaipusam, but instead of making stereotypes based on acquired knowledge, the way they are dressed or how their kavadis looks, you should actually keep an alert eye to stake out the ones who are causing the problem not the ones who MAY cause problems. Its just like trying to arrest me for thinking of a murder even before I commit it. (if the judicial system worked that way, I’d be hanged by now).
And then the policemen. I always had great regard for this job and I think I answered one of my questions in my previous post about becoming a police officer. Sure, many of those I spoke to yesterday were not higher or upper management but why does everyone have to believe their voice carries no weight. Many Indian policemen present yesterday did understand the devotees pains and their hearts went out to them. As an Indian and as a policeofficer, you are the perfect match of both giving a perspective closest to the layman and at the same time still be able to think of feasibility and security and give valuable feedback or input. But as both the policemen I spoke put it – they don’t think they can make a difference. Well I will state it right here and quote me anytime on this one voice is better than none. Its times like these I think of Seelan Palay and his one man, 5 day fast and thank god that people like him who still believe that an individual can make a difference, no matter how small, exist.
And to upper management. One of the higher officials asked me yesterday why I was so edgy and so tense. He asked me if it was my first year helping out. I said no it is my 2nd. He said “aiyah we have been doing this for 18 years la. Just relax.” And I genuinely told him this – “Well maybe you should trying carrying an Alagu Kavadi and walking the entire distance one year and you will get all the experience you need”. When higher authorities themselves undermine the people, there is something wrong. The government, the police force and social organisations are not there to undermine people, they are there to serve people and represent them. When you formulate policies and forget the individual in the midst of it, then your policies amount to dust.
And then there were the officials who treated us volunteers as if we were their runners. There will be about 10 policemen standing in one place but even then, one female volunteer can go escort 3 frustrated musicians with no help offered. I loudly muttered to one of my friends in front of four such officers, “Yes, they expect us to know police tactics, firemen strategies and first aid too”. One turned to shout a loud “what” which I conveniently ignored the same fashion they chose to ignore the many things they should have intervened and given a hand in. We are volunteers, we never underwent training to deal with such circumstances so a little help wouldn’t hurt. That said, there were genuinely a few nice policemen amidst them who tried to help but even one of them told me that Thaipusam duty is the most “shiok” duty to do cos there is very little to do. Sad isn’t it? I told him that next year maybe they should take off and walk and feel the devotees’ pain and then they will better serve our needs as lawmakers.
And lastly of course, Hindu Endowment Board and organising commitees from either temple. Be it your internal commitee problems, fear of police, reluctance to face unhappy devotees and other various bureacratic red-tape, I think its about time you show your faces. Listen to their voices, the many people who tell you what they want, what they need and how they wish for this festival to be conducted. Don’t just hear them, LISTEN to them. These are the people who walk, year after year. These are the people who know where it gets jammed, where they need music to refresh and encourage them, where they need to quicken their pace, what they need the police to do, how to stop the double flow.They are the experts and they are the ones who will come year after year in hopes that at least this year things will be a lot better.
I leave you with a message a wise friend sent me amidst my laments that this entire process could be done in a much better way..
“The masses have been complaining about how the event has become as such for many years and every year its only getting worse and showing that their voice is not listened to. Different from not being heard. The people up there are hearing it fine but they are not listening. ”
So let us think of a better way for this to be solved. Let us gather out thoughts and talk and see both sides of the picture. I do not envy the police and the officials’ position but they need to be more careful at organisational levels and involve more people who are Indians at the higher levels to give the commands and to call the shots. Let us welcome intellectual discourse as to how the event can be better. All of us don’t want trouble makers too but at the same time we wish to be able to celebrate our festival with joy and in the fashion we wish to. There must be some midpoint and I am sure if all of us decide that our voices can make a difference, we WILL one day be able to make a difference.