If you were to visit Malaysia, Singapore, or other Southeast Asian countries with large Tamil Hindu populations, you may be lucky enough to experience the Tamil festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam takes place during the Tamil month of Thai—typically January or February, depending on the lunar calendar. The Tamil Hindus are traditionally from South India or Sri Lanka but many members of the Tamil family can be found in other Southeastern Asian countries.
Thaipusam is the combination of Thai, the month, and Pusam, meaning star. During the highest point of the festival, the star will be at its highest point in the sky. Devotees believe that this celebration is the commemoration of Murugan, the physical embodiment of the God Shiva’s light and wisdom, receiving a val or spear, to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman.
While the tens of thousands of devotees travel en masse from one Hindu temple to another in the Batu Caves, they are accompanied by devotees in a trance traditionally called Kavadi Attam. Kavadi Attam, or Burden Dance, is a physical representation of their devotion to Murugan. These physical representations are often shown in the form of spears piercing the devotee’s flesh.
“What many might also not understand is that 'kavadi attam' (kavadi dance), where the devotee dances with the kavadi is an integral part of this religious celebration. And where there is no music, there can be no dance.Which is why the playing of musical instruments such as drums has been an intrinsic component of this religious practice of penance. ”— The Online Citizen
Typical drums that can be heard performing with the Kavadi are the urumi, thavil, jaalra, and thappu. The urumi is a double headed, hour-glass shaped drum that can be struck and the mallet can be drug across the drum head to create a drone-like sound. A thavil is a barrel-shaped drum that can be played by the fingers or with a mallet. The jaalra is a set of small hand cymbals. Thappu is a large, round drum that is, in shape, very similar to the snare drum though larger in diameter.
To celebrate Thaipusam in your classroom or rehearsal space, see if you have or can borrow any of these instruments. Create a drum circle and learning traditional Indian rhythmic patterns like Konnakkol. This is a great way to introduce your musicians to other forms of drum use and rhythm than just a Western or Eurocentric idea of rhythm. Play the videos embedded in this blog post for your students or ensemble members. You may have some budding percussionists or ethnomusicologists who would greatly benefit from being able to experience non-Western forms of music.
This blog post is part of a series linked to our Music Celebrations Around the World calendar. Download the calendar for access to information about musical celebrations and holidays with strong musical components to share in your music classroom or with your ensemble members!