Penang Taipusam – A reflection on its history

 |Jan 16, 2017
The battle of chariots in Taipusam 2017 could permanently split Penang Hindus on caste line, thanks to DAP-led Penang government politicking.
The battle of chariots in Taipusam 2017 could permanently split Penang Hindus on caste line, thanks to DAP-led Penang government politicking.

The Taipusam battle of chariots has dominated the Tamil-speaking Hindu community in Penang for past few weeks.

Some have taken sides – either in favour of the traditional silver or the latest golden chariot.

Others are either ignorant or naive about it, while some could not be bothered about the whole fiasco.

So many stories and tales have been propagated, largely by the DAP-led Penang government, to sway public opinion in its favour.

The fundamental truth of the whole fiasco was that it was triggered by the DAP government through the Penang Hindu Endowments Board (PHEB).

It was the DAP government-controlled PHEB that planned to hold the golden chariot to rival the silver chariot procession, which had been traditionally organised by the Chettiar community, a Tamil Hindu sub-community.

Thus, it would not be surprising if the state body propagated and spun tales, largely based on half-truths and half-lies, to smear the Chettiar community to gain an upper hand in public opinion to back its cause.

The silver chariot procession during the annual Penang Taipusam celebration in George Town.
The silver chariot procession during the annual Penang Taipusam celebration in George Town.

‘Makkal Pusam’

Some have claimed that the golden chariot would mark the return of ‘Makkal Pusam’ (people’s Taipusam).

It was as if the Taipusam festival, which began circa late 18th Century, which was before PHEB even came to existence, was never a ‘Makkal Pusam’ before this.

Penang Taipusam has always been ‘Makkal Pusam’.

So long the Chettiars, notwithstanding their shortcomings, conduct the silver chariot procession and the lay public do their bit to celebrate the festival without being restrained by various unwarranted and unnecessary terms and conditions imposed by PHEB, Penang Taipusam would remain ‘Makkal Pusam’.

The fact it’s the PHEB which has been trying to hijack it to become a ‘Arasu Pusam’ (government Taipusam).

PHEB is a statutory body under the state government.

Originally it was created as the Mohamedan (Muslim) and Hindu Endowments Board during the British colonial rule through the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Ordinance 1906.

The Muslim and Hindu endowments split ways in 1940s and since then PHEB has been governed by Hindu Endowments Ordinance.

PHEB role is to manage Hindu endowments, not religious activities, in the state.

Perhaps one shall delve into the past history of Penang Taipusam to shed some light on this contentious issue of whether PHEB should get involve in organising and managing Hindu religious affairs.

The 'Vel' shrine built on a hilly terrain by Hindus next to a waterfall in Botanical Garden, George Town. circa 1880s.
The ‘Vel’ shrine built on a hilly terrain by Hindus next to a waterfall in Botanical Garden, George Town circa 1880s.

When did the Penang Taipusam started in George Town?

Based on several write-ups on Straits Settlement history, Penang Taipusam has its roots at the foot of a hilly terrain in Botanical Gardens in Waterfall area.

When the British landed on Penang shore in 1786, led by Francis Light, the imperial government brought along Indians, not others, to explore and exploit the island.

The Indians were generally from southern India, mostly sepoys, servants and exiled political detainees, who were prisoners of independence war against the British back in India.

These Indians were the ones who opened the island and turned a huge jungle into a town called George Town, which has now grown to a city.

By 1790, Straits Settlement records showed that over 1,000 Indians were already on the island.

Due to growing need for fresh clean water supply to the growing town population, the Waterfall hills were identified as a source.

Indians labourers were used to derive water from a waterfall and transport it to the town for some years before they were deployed to build a aqueduct from Waterfall to facilitate uninterrupted water supply in George Town.

The Tamil community’s much revered deity – Murugan Perumaan’s spear, the ‘Vel’, was installed by these labourers beside the waterfall circa 1795.

The home of the ‘Vel’ was slowly built up into a shrine on a mini hill next to the waterfall.

The shrine still exists until today in the area, which is now being overseen by the state water authority.

Devotees near the 'Vel' shrine built on a hilly terrain by Hindus next to a waterfall in Botanical Garden, George Town circa 1900s.
Devotees near the ‘Vel’ shrine built on a hilly terrain by Hindus next to a waterfall in Botanical Garden, George Town circa 1900s.

Prayers, kavadis and a festival ensued annually to pay homage to the Muruga Perumaan and his ‘Vel’ since then, and historians believe, this was the humble beginning of Penang Taipusam.

The festival was celebrated in small scale by Murugan devotees within the Waterfall area annually until the arrival of a wooden chariot procession, thanks to a Tamil sub-community called Chettiars.

The chariot procession which reportedly started in late 1850s turned the festival into a mega annual Hindu carnival that attracted not only locals but devotees and tourists from all over the world to Penang.

And the old ‘Vel’ shrine next to a waterfall in Botanical Garden in George Town was the catalyst of Nattukothai Chettiars’ Thandayuthabani Koyil and Penang Taipusam, later the hilltop temple, Balathandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall.

By the way, the ‘Makkal Pusam’ started long before PHEB has even existed.

Related links:
Ignominious battle of Taipusam chariots – DAP government’s golden move to split Penang Hindus
DAP’s shameful, appalling Taipusam golden chariot monetary agenda
DAP’s golden chariot critic assaulted by thugs in Penang
Police told to check on legality of the DAP government’s Taipusam golden chariot
Penang Taipusam – The Chettiars’ role