Thai Poosam is celebrated by Tamils everywhere, but in Penang, the Chinese join in too.

A few months ago, I was in Penang to attend the Sashtiapdaboorthi (60th birthday celebrations) of a friend. It was conducted in a grand manner in the largest temple in Penang, the Dhandayuthapani Temple, work on which was started by the Nattukottai Chettiar settlers in the town in 1854 and which was consecrated in 1857. A striking temple rich with teak, hidden behind a typical kittangi (Chettiar bank-cum-residence) frontage, it hosted about a thousand guests of all faiths on this happy occasion. But sitting in a corner, removed from the action, I watched, fascinated, a procession of a different sort.

In a corner of the outer circumambulatory corridor, away from the rear of the main temple, is a small shrine to Lord Ganesha. It was to this shrine that the procession I watched all morning headed briskly. It was a procession of Chinese, in their favoured workday clothes of shorts and T-shirts, heading straight for Lord Ganesha, either singly or in family groups. And there they made their offerings, prayed with all the fervour of any Hindu and left with ash and kumkum on their foreheads. Some then stopped to pay their obeisance to Lord Dhandayuthapani; no one looking embarrassedly like an intruder even for a moment not only in the temple but also amid the ceremonies going on.

Watching me focussed on this Chinese presence, a trustee of the temple, Dr. S.N.A.S. Narayanan, laughed as he told me, “Many of them are more regular than we are when it comes to communing with Lord Ganesha here. They have immense faith in Him and feel if they pray to Him before they leave for work, their businesses will prosper.” And then he added, “I’ll bring you here on another day and you can see them performing paal (milk) abhishegam.” And he did and I watched a score and more Chinese arrive with pots of milk to bathe their benefactor. As we were leaving, Dato Ramanathan, another Trustee, turned to me and said, “You never accept our invitations for Thai Poosam. That’s really something to see. Hundreds of Chinese and persons of other faiths…Sikhs, Christians, many a foreigner…they all break coconuts along the processional route and seek Lord Muruga’s blessings. Many of the Chinese break coconuts in the hundreds.”

Thai Poosam is celebrated on the day of the Full Moon of the Tamil month of Thai (January-February) and this year it will be on January 27. Preparations for the three-day festival that will be attended by at least a hundred thousand people started on November 27. The festival proper will begin on January 25 at the Kovil Veedu in Little India (138 Penang Street), the central Chettiar kittangi where Lord Muruga’s icon was installed on the third floor as far back as 1850, before the Chettiars built a permanent temple. On this day, the kavadi preparations and getting Lord Muruga ready for his journey, which will begin early on January 26 morning, get underway. The centrepiece of the procession is a silver-clad chariot in which the golden statue of Lord Muruga will travel to the accompaniment of prayers, chanting and music. All along the seven km route through the heritage and buffer zones of George Town and then outside it, it is greeted by thousands of people smashing coconuts, hundreds carrying kavadis, performing penance through mortification of the body, or fervently beseeching Lord Muruga. And they are people of all faiths. The Chinese are responsible, it is estimated, for two-thirds, and more of the 600,000 coconuts that are broken before the Lord.

The procession stops at two Hindu temples and at several refreshment stalls (thanneer panthals) along the way, put up by people of all faiths and at which crowds gather to seek the Lord’s blessings — and refreshments. The Chinese stalls also offer Mandarin oranges to devotees; these are considered as gold and harbingers of good luck by the Chinese.

Eventually, at 11 at night, the chariot will reach the Dhandyuthapani Temple aka the Thanneermalai Temple on Waterfall Road. There the Lord will stay the night and till January 28 evening, blessing all those who seek His darshan, including “a sea of Chinese”. January 27 will be marked by prayers as well as the Nagarathar bringing on their heads milk pots (paal kudam). They will also bring, to get the Lord’s blessings, infants and children up to about age five in cradles (thotti) made of new silk saris slung from sugarcane plants. At 6.30 p.m. on January 28 He will return to the Kovil Veedu by another route, being greeted by His devotees in the same fashion as when he began his journey, which will end on 29th morning.

Two days later, Thai Poosam will come to an end with devotionals at the Kovil Veedu where Lord Muruga will be re-installed. Both Narayanan and Ramanathan assert that there’s nothing like Thai Poosam in Penang anywhere else. Which may well be the case considering the participation in it of thousands of Chinese and many people of other faiths.