Cavadee originates from an ancient Tamil legend, the story of Idumban, a reformed bandit. One day his guru, Agattiyar, ordered, “Set off for the mountains, Idumban, and bring me back two summits! You will attach them at the ends of a cavadee.”
Idumban set off accompanied by his wife. Having achieved his objective he began the journey home but the god, Lord Muruga, changed himself into a little boy and hid in one of the peaks so as to make it heavier. Idumban discovered him and in anger began to fight with the little boy. But Muruga pierced him with his spear and he died.
Through their prayers, Agattiyar and his followers insistently asked Muruga to resurrect Idumban and the god granted their wish. To thank him, it was decided that those who carry a cavadee (yoke) to his temple would have their wishes granted and should thank the god for his favours and emulate his wisdom and kindness.
The legend reminds followers that the road to faith is long and hazardous, but that love and determination can help achieve great things. “Thaipoosam Cavadee” takes place in either January or February, and on the night before the ritual starts, devotees prepare their cavadees for the trial ahead.
The next day a flag bearing the symbol of a spear and a peacock is hoisted at the entrance to the temple, marking the beginning of the festival and a ten day fast. The faithful must purify their hearts and souls and a bracelet is tied around each participant’s wrist as a symbol of commitment and obedience. They must go to the temple to pray, sing hymns and make offerings.
At dawn on the tenth day of fasting, the worshippers assemble at the temple before moving in procession to a river for the rite of purification. This involves invoking Muruga’s blessing and the pouring of fresh cow milk into two small brass pots called ‘sombus’ which are then tied to each side of a cavadee.
Next, the penitents have their bodies pierced with needles and hooks though female devotees have either their cheeks or tongue pierced. Devotees who do not have any part of their body pierced wear a piece of saffron-dyed cloth around the mouth instead.
When this ceremony has been completed, the procession moves slowly back towards the temple where the cavadees are dismounted and the piercings removed. The devotees bring their sombus to the priest who pours the milk over a statue of Muruga. Some of this milk is collected and given back to be drunk and shared with deep veneration. An act of great sacrifice has been consummated and Muruga has blessed everyone.
The next day devotees gather at the temple to take part in a brief ceremony whereupon the flag is brought down. Thus ends the very elaborate and austere festival known as Cavadee.