3 most popular festivals in Malaysia
When you think ofMalaysia, gorgeous towers and architecture comes to mind, as well as the cuisine. Apart from that, it is also home to some of the strangest festivals like the Thaipusam, in which devotees participate in a gut-wrenching ritual of intentionally piercing various parts of their bodies and face with skewers, hooks and other sharp instruments just to appease their Gods and also endure other pains such as climbing a large number of stairs and even whipping themselves during the festival of Muharram. Now, you might think that Malaysian festivals are ‘over-the-top’ or not your cup of tea, but don’t worry, there are other festivals which you can enjoy without cringing or shutting your eyes. There are festivals like Royal Floria which is the annual flower festival, as well as the Malaysian water festival which is similar to the equally fun Songkran water Festival in Thailand. These festivals involve fun, games and tasty food as well. Malaysia also has a huge Hindu population and as a result, shares with India many Hindu festivals such as the festival of Ganesh and Deepavali. Here are some of the festivals celebrated in Malaysia.
Thaipusam (January 21)
This festival is held in honour of the Lord Murugan in the Hindu Tamil community and is a strange ritual that will send chills down your spine, as it involves devotees piercing hooks, sharp skewers or small spears through their skin, tongues or faces and also indulging in other forms of self-mutilation, while other devotees chant “vel, vel!” in the background in order to cheer them on. Although this ritual looks and seems like it would hurt a lot, it is actually painless as the devotees undergo rigorouspreparation by cleansing themselves for 48 days through celibacy, special diet, chanting prayers, bathing in only cold water, sleeping on the floor, etc. and also going into a trance to endure the pain of these piercings. In fact, they barely bleed and leave no scars either. This ritual has its origins in the myth of Lord Murugan gifting his mother, the goddess of love and fertility, Parvati with vels (spears). This occasion commemorates the gift. The piercing of tongues and cheeks is symbolic of the devotee giving up his his/her gift of speech.
Many who are brave enough also pull the heavy Kavadi/burdens (giant, heavy and artistic shrines) by attaching the Kavadi to their bodies with the sharp skewers. The largest ‘Vel Kavadi’ requires 108 spears and human assistance for the devotee who volunteers to pull it. The procession is accompanied by chaotic noisy drumming and more chanting. This procession is also known as the Burden Dance or Kavadi Aattam and at times it also involves walking on burning coals, if the piercing was not daring enough! Devotees who are pierced also pull heavy sleds behind them. This arduous yet religious ritual ends only once the devotees reach the designated spots where the shrines are kept and worshiped at the magnificent Batu Caves where the tallest statue of Lord Murugan stands at 140 feet.
The statue and surroundings are decorated beautifully in flowers and peacock feathers and the devotees dressed in orange and yellow colours associated with Lord Murugan also place the pitchers of milk which they carry on their shaved heads at the feet of the statue or bathe it in the milk. Even after a long walking distance and climbing the 272 stairs up to the caves and enduring strenuous pain of the hooks sticking out of their skin, tongue and face, the devotees still smile through it all and celebrate this ancient festival with glee.
While joining in the festivities, be respectful of the Malaysian culture and do not point in horror or treat the devotees, who volunteer to have their bodies pierced, as sideshow freaks. Photographing is allowed, but do not disrupt the rituals in any way. Also keep an eye on your belongings in the thronging crowds.
Hungry ghost Festival (August 15)
This festival is held on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar Month (July) by Buddhists and Taoists and according to a Chinese belief, it is said to be the day when the Gates of Hell open up to release all the hungry ghosts who wander around to seek food on Earth. In fact, the name- ‘Hungry Ghost’ – comes from the fusion of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist teachings. In Buddhism, it’s believed that the world consists of 6 realms, one of which is the ‘Preta’, which translates into ‘hungry ghost’. In the realm of Preta, the dwellers are represented as they’re always hungry having the incredibleappetite but with the inability to eat or drink. They’re usually the ones who’ve been ignored by their families for most of the time,which death was unfair or they didn’t get a proper burial ceremony when they died.
This day is also when peopleremember their deceased family and friends and make offerings to ward off bad luck. Sacrificial offerings include paper cloth, as well as food and prayers to family members who died. This also includes paper money or rather, ‘hell money’, as it is called by the locals. All these are later burnt to enable the deceased souls to ‘use’ them in the afterlife. Huge tents are erected in empty fields and temples and huge feasts are thrown for the homeless and hungry ghosts.
In the evenings, parties and concerts are thrown for the ghosts as well as for the spectators. Chinese operas, puppet shows and other such traditional games and events are held, but the modern generation has lost interest in such entertainment and now only find favour with most senior citizens or the elderly. There is also difficulty in procuring trained performers and hence, they have gradually also been succeededwith newer types of entertainment for both – the dead and the living! Believe it or not, front-row seats are also reserved at the venue for the ghostly guests of honour and it is forbidden to sit in these reserved chairs as it is believed that this angers the spirits and they will unleash their wrath and curse to the person who does so with bad luck or an illness. There are stories supporting this ominous belief and tourists are often warned in advance. Sounds of popular live Chinese music (in Hokkien dialect called Koh Tai)blasts from the stage. These concerts are funded by members of certain associations and organisations as they are rather expensive, but done with love and respect for a time-honoured tradition which has stood the test of Western and modern influence.
When the festival is about to close, Kin of Hades – Tai Su Yeah is sent back to Hell in the form of burning paper effigies. In some places of Malaysia, paper effigies are placed in sampan or a small wooden boat by the devotees and burned. After the burning is complete, people usually make their final prayers hoping that their family members and ancestors who died, are happy with their offerings they got this year.
Malaysia water festival (April)
This festival begins in April and lasts till the end of April. It takes place in Labuan and is also known as the Langkawi International festival. Many activities such as the International fishing tournament, kayak sprint challenges, sandcastle building competitions, pillow fighting challenge, water sports competitions such as island to island kayak race, underwater treasure hunt, fishing competitions, beach netball games etc. are held and this festival has been held since 2002. Most of these activities happen in Pantai Kok (Telaga Harbour Park) and Pantai Cenang.
Streets are also lined with stalls sellingwater guns, water pistols, water cannons, etc. for a large water fight between everyone. This is believed to cleanse everyone participating in this water fight of their sins and washing away of misfortunes. Sneak attacks with water balloons further add to the fun, mischief and excitement of this game.
The festival is brought to a close by offering prayers at the prayer halls.
If you are interested to visit Malaysia now, to see all these spectacles with your own eye, make sure to check out the German website from Backpackertrail. There you can find more info and more blog posts about what to expect for you trip to Malaysia.
List of other major festivals
January-Pongal (a 4-day thanksgiving feast), Gawai Dayak
February- Chinese New Year, Tianan Surfing Festival, Pasiv Gudang International Kite Festival (also in March), Kuching Heritage Race, Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
March- Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival, Mini Afro Latin Fiesta
April- Anzac Day, a day to commemorate the infamous Death Marches at Sandakan Memorial park which was the starting point of the Marches.
May- Vesak Day (marks birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha)
May-June- Fasting Month of Ramadan.
June-Dragon’s Back Run, Hai raya Adilfitri,
July-Borneo Cultural Festival, Rainforest World Music Festival, St. Anne’s Novena and Feast Day.
August-George Town Festival of Penang, Royal Floria (Putrajaya’s highly popular annual flower and garden festival which lasts till September)
September-Vinayagar Chaturthi (Hindu festival of Lord Ganesha), Awal Muhoram, Yang Dipertuan Agang’s birthday, Malaysia Day
October- Siniawan Heritage Fiesta, Deepavali
November-Miri Country Music Festival, Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday
Japanese Bon Odori Festival is yet another Malaysian festival (don’tlet its name fool you) for which the dates may vary.