Thaipusam Kavady: A Conversation With Melrose Muruga

Pierced by Skanda’s Vel

The resounding screams of Vel and Arogara will pierce your soul as you shuffle among thousands of devotees at Melrose Temple in Johannesburg.

That heavy feeling accompanied in your chest will continue to beat as the bhajan boys command your attention with their raucous singing. It is in this chaotic singing & chanting that you find absolute peace, there’s a method to this madness.

It is the month of Thaipusam and thousands of Lord Muruga devotees converge at the legendary Johannesburg Melrose Temple for the final day of Thaipusam kavady. The once humble tin-shack has remained a leading Murugan worship beacon since the 1800’s. The temple has been drawing devotees from all walks of life – and globally – seeking answers to their journey in the here and now. There is definitely something inexplicable about the spiritual charge that remains at this temple, I cannot explain it but only ask that one visit this temple to understand what I mean.

The name “Muruga” is translated in “The Beautiful One”. Muruga being beautiful in thought, word and deed. He carries the Vel signifying knowledge and wisdom. His father, Lord Shiva bestowed his son Lord Muruga eleven weapons while his mother, Parvati handed him the 12th weapon a spear that we know as the Vel.

The story behind Thaipusam

On the day of Thaipusam, Lord Muruga destroyed Tarakasura with the powerful Vel. Thaipusam is therefore one of the most auspicious days to make offerings to Lord Muruga. Devotees also abstain from meat, alcohol and sex during the month prior to Thaipusam.

The festival is observed in areas of southern India, but it is celebrated with far greater fervour within the immigrant Indian communities of South Africa, Mauritius, Malaysia and Singapore, where historically it is linked to the colonial history of British occupation. Indians from the region of Tamil Nadu began to immigrate all over the world in search of opportunity in the 19th century, largely to work in foreign lands.

Vel Vel Vetrivel

Being cut off from their ancestral villages, labouring long hours for menial pay, many turned to the Hindu god Murugan, son of the Lord Shiva, and who, in various versions of the Hindu epics, is seen as a figure of wrath and war. To many, Lord Murugan has became a symbol of perseverance and hope.

Discovering absolute peace among the pain

This religious festival of Thaipoosam is a powerful assertion of Tamil pride across South Africa. 

To the unfamiliar and many of tourists that visit Melrose Shree Siva Subramaniar temple during Kavady season, the immensely physical pain borne by many kavadi-bearers can be a sight that’s hard to look beyond a few seconds in some instance. But beneath the vivid spectacle, Thaipusam has a quiet and even tender meaning as a demonstration of love and loyalty, especially among Indian males not ordinarily inclined to displays of emotion.

Here’s Naufal Khan’s personal experience as he followed one such devotee Melrose temple during Thaipoosam kavady.

On the blistering hot Sunday, I arrived at the gate of the Shree Siva Subramaniar Kovil. I could feel that sense of pride among fellow Murugan devotees from all walks of life. The temple was a hive of activity with men and women busying themselves with chores for the day that promised sheer excitement as Lord Muruga is set to to praised.

On the grounds, I spotted my writing assignment Sershin Ramaye, he looked wild with an overgrown beard and a full head of hair. When I met him a month ago he carved a completely different look, clean-cut, smooth shaven in a 9 to 5 suit attire for his banking job.

He was busy adorning an arched wooden ‘kavadi’ with flowers, lime and resplendent peacock feathers. This was his own kavadi which he was scheduled to carry today, it looked beautiful.

I turn my attention to Ramaye’s mother as she explains that her son made this promise to carry his ‘kavadi’ every year until he cannot anymore. She had a worried look on her face as Sershin made final preparations for his ascension of sorts. A crowd of family and friends gather an hour later like vultures around him. The beating of drums, the ear-splitting clash of cymbals shake your core as the the chanting or ‘bhajans’ – devotional songs begin to conquer your senses.

All to the beat of the musical instrument the mridangam, cymbals and the cries of Arogara, the rhythmic beat and voices of bhajan singers rising insistently. I felt as if I was at the very moment of battle between Murugan and the demon lord Tarakasura.

I noticed the gradual change in Sershin’s composure as if he was almost another entity altogether. Sershin was looking at the flame of the camphor but at the same time he wasn’t. The mysterious look he had was like a ‘tandav dance’ in the centre of his eyes. His mother was his handler, she clearly was a cornerstone of his faith as she stood beside him. As she stood next to her son with his Vel gripped firmly in her hand, tears were welling up in her glaucoma-ridden eyes. Amidst the rising dust and overbearing sounds of the bhajan boy she leaned forward and yelled Guru, Mata, Pita, Deivam into her sons left ear. She pointed at a black and white framed picture of Lord Muruga, it was clearly a family heirloom – it was old but beautiful. Sershin’s mum kept pointing at the picture of Lord Muruga as her tears departed from her eyes onto his shoulder looking at him and then again at the frame of Muruga. She was clearly harnessing her son for what was to some.

Lord Muruga Thaipoosam Kavady 2020

A month prior, Sershin slept on a floor, he had unkempt hair, a wild beard, ungroomed nails and body hair that sprouted so fast. A vegetarian diet, meditation and peace of mind were his aides during his month of preparation for this very moment. Sershin kept his focus waiting for Arul – the Grace of God to descend upon him.

The vibrations of the raucously loud devotional music was mind blowing for anyone who was around him. My skin crawled as goosebumps rose all over me, I could feel something definitively divine present in this moment.

The wafting aroma of strong incense, flecks of camphor dancing in a Tandav in front of us kept my focus difficult, the crackling sound of cloves with an overpowering smell invaded everyone and anything. I could sense Sershin was already leaving his body as he swayed left to right on his knees, I scanned the clear sky and could almost visualise Lord Skanda majestically poised on his Mayil (peacock) hovering above. Finally, the spirit of Lord Muruga engulfed Sershin’s entire being, the ritual has reached a new height. The screams of Arogara drove my mind into absolute elation being a Murugan devotee myself.

Sershin was no more present that I could tell, there was something divine now present in this mere human frame. As I looked on, the flames of camphor messed with my view of what was happening. In a flashing moment, I swear I witnessed that celestial moment as Goddess Parvati handed the Vel to Lord Muruga or was it Sershin’s mother handing her son the Vel?

Perhaps it was the blistering heat of the Johannesburg sun that made me tired…..made me see things? I did not have time to question what I saw, the spectacle was about to begin. His mother stood bravely as she lifted a red cloth exposing a a medley of varying sized hooks and pins on a tray. The drone of Arogora filled the air as these hooks and pins were inserted into Sershin’s bare torso, abdomen, back and arms.

Gray powder the holy ash known as – ‘vibuthi’ was rubbed across his chest and mouth as the most agonizing part began: the insertion of a thin steel needle through his cheeks, followed by a trident-shaped stud into the tip of his tongue. No blood was present at each piercing on his body or face, his faith was clearly visible as he accepted each steel piercing into his skin.

Ramaye barely flinched, though his father stood away as the most painful piercing took place, looking worried as his son’s eyes closed and his head slowly bobbed up and down. Sershin was in absolute joy as he peacocked around summoning his most prized item, Lord Muruga’s Vel. Once in his hand firmly he was now fully in tune with the divine.

Finally, his kavady was hoisted onto his shoulders and the walk began among thousands of devotees. This act by Sershin and others is a show of faith and love for the Divine in his form as Lord Muruga.

The atmosphere was tense and emotions flowed from every person as they screamed out the Divines name followed with ‘Vel Vel Vetrivel’ and ‘Arogara’. Lord Muruga on his palanquin was carried around the Kovil as devotees chanted in unison in praise of the Lord. Very soon after devotees dispersed with a feeling of inner peace as they had completed their journey like the first devotee of Lord Muruga, Idumban. If there is one experience you must have either as an onlooker, devotee or just curious. Go seek Muruga at Temples wherever you are, divinity is present whether you wish to acknowledge it or not.

Once prayers were conducted and completed inside the main temple hall devotees streamed out as it was time for the flag for Thaipusam to be brought down signifying the end of the Kavadi celebrations. It is customary with every Kavady celebration, a sumptuous vegetarian meal accompanied with the famed strawberry milkshake dubbed ‘Creme De La Muruga’ is a must-have.

I glanced around for Sershin and caught a flashing moment of him or was it Lord Muruga?

ABOUT: Naufal Khan is the editor of Indian Spice and the author of fantasy/occult novels ‘A Deal With Mother Kali’ and a brand new South African fantasy series titled ‘Secret of Shiva’ coming soon.

Connect with him here on his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram here

Thaipusam Kavady 2020 at Melrose Temple in Gauteng

  • Flag hoisting is on Thursday, 30 January 2020.
  • Main Day and Public Day is on Saturday, 8 February 2020, starting at 6am for kavady preparations.
  • The flag will be brought down on 8 February 2020.

Where to find: Melrose Temple is located on 2nd Street in Melrose. For more information, call +27-79-696-6445.