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Music helped me during Thaipusam

Ravi Philemon 1981
Ravi Philemon, 1981


By Ravi Philemon

In 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew reportedly said that while a non-Indian might not understand the ethical values of self-immolation and expressions of penance as expressed through the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, he nonetheless admired the self-discipline and stoicism of  devotees who paraded from Serangoon Road to Tank Road, their bodies pierced with metal hooks carrying heavy and complex steel structures called ‘kavadi’.[i]

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.

Thaipusam originated in Tamil Nadu, India and was brought to our shores by our forefathers of Indian origin. And to better understand this Hindu celebration, we may have to look at how the festival is celebrated in the land of its origin.

A Government of Tamil Nadu’s website listing several festivals of Tamil Nadu describes the ‘Kavadi’ festival as such: “Dancing in a hypnotic trance to the rhythm of drums, the devotees of Muruga carry the ‘Kavadi’ which is a flower decked decoration that is carried on the shoulders, all the way up the Palani Hills to fulfil their vow.”[ii] This description of the festival by the Tamil Nadu Government clearly points to the fact that you cannot separate the playing of drums from the ritual of carrying kavadis.

In Singapore, even if the prohibition of musical instruments during the ‘kavadi’ procession is not a new requirement and had already been in place since 1973[iii], it seems from past years’ newspaper reports that the prohibition was not strictly enforced.

For example, an article which appeared in The Straits Times in 1979 – 6 years after the prohibition of musical instruments during religious foot processions – says that the Hindu Endowment Board in consultation with the Ministry of Social Affairs has a list of “do’s and don’ts” to be observed by the kavadi carriers in that year, and that list only bans “musical instruments alien to the festival, such as bongos and drums”[iv].

Another article which appeared in the same year in that same publication acknowledges that there is a controversy if “classical Indian drums such as the tabela should be used, or whether innovations such as bongos are also acceptable, or indeed whether there should be any drums at all.” Nonetheless, it concludes that “drums are vital to the devotees’ maintenance of their trance, which is very important to ensure that the devotees avoid feeling any pain throughout the procession”[v].

Yet another article on Thaipusam appearing in the same broadsheet in the year 1994 recounts how thousands of kavadi-bearers walked 4-kilometres to the beat of temple drums to complete their vows[vi]

Past years newspaper articles indeed suggest that the police had tried to suppress the playing of musical instruments during Thaipusam over the years, but that such suppression has been met with the disapproval of both Indians and non-Indians[vii].

There have been several suggestions from Government ministers that the ban on musical instruments was put in place for the sake of maintaining law and order, that Hindus are privileged because they are exempted from the ban on foot procession, unlike the adherents of other religions which have to abide by the ban which was imposed after the 1964 riots in Singapore.

Of course law and order would naturally be a concern especially in such a large-scale religious procession, but most devotees are sensible to stay on the right side of the law. And for those that flout the law, I believe that our policemen and women are competent enough to deal appropriately with them. The very few arrests made during the Thaipusam festival for rowdy behaviour would certainly point to the fact that devotees don’t set out to break the law at such religious events.

In a secular society, the argument that one religion is more privileged than others is also a tricky one. Should not all religions be treated equally? Also, where do we draw the line at the ‘privileged position’ argument?

For example, ritual killing of animals is required in several religions, but in Singapore, except from Muslims, all others are prohibited from offering animal sacrifice. Can we then say that the Muslims are more privileged than others in this regard because the Government has not prohibited them from doing this?

What about Taoists and Buddhists being allowed to burn joss papers? Do they enjoy a privilege adherents of other religions do not?

The adherents of the various religions practice their religions as prescribed by the various religions not because the Government has given them the privilege to do so, but because Freedom of Religion is a Constitutional Right.

“12.—(1) All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.

(2) Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion …

15.—(1) Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”[viii]

Our Constitution actually allows for more freedom to be accorded to a religious event than a non-religious one. But with its statements, the Government seems to suggest that the opposite is true[ix].

The riots of 1964 happened a long, long time ago, a time when Singapore was part of Malaysia and its race-based politics. We cannot continue to use that riot as a bogeyman. Times have now changed and Singaporeans of different races have better understanding of each other, and there has never been a scuffle over racial/religious issues over the last 50 years.

Under such circumstances, would it not be better to scale-up the tolerance level for such religious processions than to enthusiastically enforce an old law which’s rationale may be questionable?

For 3 consecutive years from 1981, I had carried the Kavadi and remember the drums playing around me vividly. The rhythm of the drums certainly helped me to remain in a trance-like state and enabled me to complete my religious vow satisfactorily.

Why can’t musical instruments be played to help kavadi carriers during Thaipusam? Has this question even been answered?

  • [i] ‘Festival Attracting Interest of Young’ -The Straits Times, 10 February 1979
  • [ii] Tamil Nadu Tourism (a Govt. of Tamil Nadu undertaking) website:
  • [iii] ‘Street procession rules, including music ban, help keep event safe and peaceful: S. Iswaran’ -The Straits Times, 5 February 2015
  • [iv] “Thaipusam: Rowdies get warning from Board” – The Straits Times, 5 February 1979
  • [v] “Festival attracting interest of young” – The Straits Times, 10 February 1979
  • [vi] “Kavadi bearers; 4-km walk of faith” – The Straits Times, 28 January 1994
  • [vii] Letter to The Straits Times ‘It’s like watching a concert on TV with volume off’, 24 January 1981
  • [viii] Constitution of the Republic of Singapore
  • [ix] “Hindus not discriminated against: Shanmugam on Thaipusam incident” – Channel NewsAsia, 6 Feb 2015
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