Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Burdened Journey

The second day of Thaipusam is even more spectacular than the first! On Day 2, Lord Murugan has already made his journey to the Hindu temple near the waterfall on Penang Hill. Now, devotees carry burdens and offerings to Lord Murugan to ask for blessings. Here is Jennifer and Craig standing next to three worshippers on their way to the temple. These fruits are attached to their skin by tiny hooks!

Here's a look at another worshipper. Yes, that spear is piercing both of his cheeks! The three-pronged spear this man is carrying represents the weapon that Lord Murugan used to defeat the Asuras in the war in heaven. This worshipper also has hooks in his back with a string attached to each one. His friend pulls on those strings the entire trip to Penang Hill.

In preparation for the trek to Penang Hill, these worshippers will fast for 48 days, eating only certain foods once per day. They are put into a sort of trance, then their piercings are put on. Because of their preparation, they feel little or no pain, even when pulling a large cart up the hill like the Chinese man pictured above. Yup, this is a Hindu festival, but all are welcome to participate!

Each of these silver containers is loaded with either milk or honey. Once this man reaches the statue of Lord Murugan, he will "unburden" himself by taking off all of the hooks and leaving the milk and honey in the temple as an offering.

Some worshippers carry a kavadi up to the waterfall temple. A kavadi, like the one pictured above, represents a burden or affliction. By taking up a kavadi, the bearer earns blessings from Lord Murugan.

The path to the waterfall is lined with temporary shrines to Hindu deities. Those carrying kavadis stop at these shrines and dance.

The Indians living in Malaysia love to share their culture, and one way to experience Indian culture is through their traditional clothing. A lot of families stopped to get their picture taken with Jennifer all decked out in her pink sari.

Watching the procession for Thaipusam is a bit like participating in an article written for the National Geographic magazine. We loved being part of the culture and being welcomed into the celebration.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Silver Chariot

On the pusam day, which is the day before the full moon, during the month of Thai in the Hindu calendar, Lord Murugan's image rides a silver chariot from his temple home in Georgetown to a waterfall temple located near Penang Hill. This journey opens a three-day Tamil Hindi festival known as Thaipusam, which is celebrated by Indian settlers in Penang. Here we are standing near the Silver Chariot on day 1 of Thaipusam.

Here is a closer look at the image of Lord Murugan. Lord Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam, is the son of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is the chief god in Hinduism. Thaipusam honors two of the achievements of Lord Murugan. First, he won the war in heaven by defeating the Asuras or demons and casting them out. Second, he uttered "Aum", the primevil Hindu word for creation.

The Silver Chariot takes all day to make it to the waterfall temple. All along the way, people stack and bless coconuts. These coconuts have been blessed with an orange powder, and have a small Chinese note on them.

Even though Thaipusam is a Tamil Hindu celebration observed by ethnic Indians, many other cultures get involved as well. Malaysians truly know how to embrace diversity by welcoming and celebrating each culture's holidays together. This shopkeeper is ethnic Chinese. Although she is not Hindu, she is welcome to join in the celebration. According to other Malaysian Chinese friends that I have, Lord Murugan is regarded as a very powerful god, so many Chinese pray for help from him.

You're probably wondering what the significance is of the coconuts. Well, everyone is welcome to take a coconut...

And smash it! Yup, all those nicely stacked coconuts end up as husks sitting on top of coconut milk soaked asphalt! Craig got to smash a few! At first he was hesitant, as if he didn't believe we'd let him smash something on the road and leave it there.

But then Jennifer smashed a few coconuts, and so did everyone else. And we were all having fun while doing it!

So, Craig got really excited and smashed a few more! The sound was incredible - like firecrackers all exploding in rapid succession! After all the smashing we were covered in coconut milk. You can see the juices flying around int he picture above! It was really cool!

Here are the leftovers. Cracking the coconuts cleanses the way before Lord Murugan, and is a symbol of thanksgiving and a prayer for prosperity all in one.

The coconuts are broken all along the path of the Silver Chariot. The two oxen pulling the heavy cart only get to stop to wait for more coconuts to be broken to cleanse the path ahead.

Here is Craig standing by the aftermath. It was truly an amazing experience to participate in cracking coconuts in Penang!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Year of the Dragon

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year! This year is the year of the Dragon, which is very lucky for many of us! Chinese New Year is a two-week long celebration that started January 22nd this year. We got to experience the celebration at Craig's school, in the Penang Clan Jetty, and Chap Goh Meh.

The Friday before Chinese New Year, Craig's school had their celebration. This is Craig wearing his traditional Chinese garb eating Yee Sang salad, a traditional Chinese dish served during new year.

Yee sang means "prosperity". It's a mixed salad of carrots, daikon, red peppers, turnips, pickled ginger, and raw fish (Jennifer had the raw fish left out for the children). It starts out like the salad above, and everyone takes the chopsticks and lifts it high in the air while saying "lo hei".

The higher you lift the salad, the luckier you'll be next year. All of the children got a chance to try it! After the tossing, the salad is mixed and you get to eat it!

Jennifer also arranged to have a special Lion Dance and Dragon Dance as part of the Chinese New Year celebration at Craig's school. Here is the colorful beast, ready to entertain the crowd!

The lion is actually two boys. Here, one is sitting on the shoulders of the other, who is standing on a table.

The lion really played to the audience. If you look closely, you can see a very happy Craig smiling at the lion! Lion Dances are meant to ward off demons and make room for good luck and prosperity!

After the lion exited, eight more young men paraded in carrying a dragon! The dragon always follows the fireball, weaving in and out, twisting and turning on itself to the beat of the Chinese drums!

The dragon also scares away demons and brings luck and prosperity!

A week after the official start of Chinese New Year is Hokkien New Year, or the celebration of the Jade Emperor's birthday. We ran into the same performing troupe from the school celebration in the crowd! They recognized Jennifer. Everyone in Penang knows Jennifer!

Here is Jennifer with the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor is the main deity, and the creator of heaven and earth. The locals bring offerings to the temple during this time of year, including pineapples, oranges, and incense. The Chinese word for pineapples and oranges sounds like the Chinese word for luck and prosperity. The incense just makes things really smoky.

Hokkien New Year is celebrated at the Chinese clan jetties in Penang. The clan jetties are a series of houses build over the water. The walkways are very narrow, but brightly lit. Here's Jennifer and two of her good friends in Penang standing in the Lee family jetty.

The houses are built on stilts over the water. They were originally erected by Chinese dock workers who unloaded trading boats in the harbor. Entire families would build their houses this way, slowly expanding further out into the water as the number of relatives grew. Now, they are a part of Penang's World Heritage status, and a living reminder of the unique houses people had.

The local Chinese traditionally place offerings to the Jade Emperor outside their doorways on this night. However, as you saw above, there is very little space for altars in front of the homes on the jetty, so the whole neighborhood shares one!

Each household brings out an offering and places it on the red table. The Chinese word for red, coincidentally, also sounds like "luck" in Chinese. These roasted pigs will wait here on the table until the Jade Emperor has had a chance to take what he wants. Whatever he doesn't take will be removed and eaten by the donating family the next morning.

Of course, there were more lion dances and dragon dances. Jennifer was invited to lead this procession of amateur dragon dancers in front of the Chew family shrine. They did a great job of following the fireball! Penangites are always happy to have others participate in the fun!

The last day of Chinese New Year is Chap Goh Meh. My dad and step mom, Kathy, joined us for this celebration.

Chap Goh Meh is celebrated with more fireworks, dancing, and orange throwing. Unmarried ladies would write their name and phone number on an orange, and then throw it into the ocean. Young men who wanted to find true love would go fetch the oranges, and then call up the lucky lady to arrange a date. Today, everyone throws oranges into the sea. Craig had a good time flinging his fruit into the black depths!

Later that night we saw the spectacular lion dance performed on stilts! These two lions paraded around each other stepping on eight-inch circles set atop eight to ten foot tall pillars.

They are quite imposing when they stand up straight!

Yup, there's still two young men in there, one standing on the shoulders of the other, who is standing on pillars ten feet off the ground!

We wish all of you a very happy new year! May the year of the dragon bring you fortune and prosperity in all of your endeavors! Gong xi fa cai!!