Cavadee, Cavadee, this word resounds like a divine incantation, and whose origin seems to come from time immemorial...
Indeed, Cavadee, a ceremony accompanied by strange tribal rituals, originates from an ancient Tamil legend. It is the story of Idumban, a highly symbolic name, which means “arrogant”. This man was a reformed bandit and a disciple of a guru known as Agattiyar. One day, the latter ordered: “Set off for the mountains, Idumban, and bring me back the two summits! You will attach them at the ends of a cavadee (the cavadee, or kavadi, is a simple yoke, or in other words, a stick that is used to carry loads). Idumban, obedient and faithful, departed for his journey accompanied by his wife. He firmly tied the two peaks to his yoke and set out to bring them back to Agattiyar. But, on the way, Lord Muruga, son of Shiva and Ouma, changed himself into a little boy and hid in one of the peaks so as to weigh down the load. However, Idumban soon discovered him and in his fury, as he could in no way recognise his God, he began to fight with the little boy. But, Muruga pierced him with his spear and the man died. Through their prayers, the wise Agattiyar and many other followers insistently asked for the divine grace of Idumban, with the result that their God finally accepted to resurrect the dead man. To thank Him for His Goodness, it was commonly decided that all those who will carry the Cavadee to the temple will have their wishes granted. As such, it will also be a good opportunity to thank him for the granted favours as well as to have the benefit of being closer to Him, to His wisdom and kindness.
Today, this legend reminds the followers that the road of faith is long and full of pitfalls... but do we not say that love and faith can make us achieve great things?
The festival is celebrated many times during the year; yet, the most grand and the most famous is “Thaipoosam Cavadee”, which usually takes place in either January or February. This festival day is a symbolic one for all the Tamils of Mauritius. The kodi (flag wearing the drawings of the “vel”: the spear that killed Idumban, and a peacock or cock) is hoisted up at the entrance of the temple, thus indicating the beginning of the fasting. A fast that will last for ten days. During this sacred period, the faithful must purify his soul and heart, whilst dispelling hatred, passion, arrogance and envy. Abstinence and prayers should be the main rules of his life. All those who wish to participate in the Cavadee must be both physically and spiritually prepared for this magnificent yet trying festival. A bracelet is tied around their wrists as a sign of commitment and obedience. As such, in the days that will follow, the penitents go to pray the Divinity and sing religious hymns at the temple. Offerings such as coconuts, fruits, milk, and saffron water are laid down at His feet...
The faithful settle down to the making of a cavadee, and also to other small yokes, which are symbols of Lord Muruga temple. Timber and bamboo are assembled to form a big arch, which at times can reach up to 3 metres in height! Then, they are adorned with leaves from the coconut tree, peacock’s feathers, flowers, limes, and sparkling cloth all sewn with tinkling small bells and miniature icons of their God.
On the day of the festival, rituals follow after rituals: prayers, offerings and purifying baths. After the ceremonial ablutions in the river or the sea, milk is poured out in two small brass pots that are covered with a piece of cloth, before being tied up to the cavadee. Most of the faithful are dressed in fuchsia, whilst some men are stripped to the waist, their dark chests already offered. The forehead, shoulders, the back and chest are smeared with sacred ashes. Children are now staring with big curious or anxious eyes for the time of sacrifice has arrived.
The faithful offer their flesh to the “vels”, which are sharp needles, but also to long, metal or silver, pikes that pierce through their cheeks, forehead, tongue, as the believers are committed to silence! The vels represent the spear of Lord Muruga that killed Idumban; it must therefore be pricked in their back, chest, abdomen and legs.
About ten or so sharp needles are aligned fan-shaped on the chests, and as some of the former have a feather-like tip, this make us think about the feathers of birds, especially those of peacocks. Others, pricked in the mouth, are linked to small chains that are slowly swaying underneath the chins. There are no screams, no cries, these men remain dignified and stoic, as suffering is nothing and God is everything. The children, who since the age of six, have decided to participate in the Cavadee festival are silently wincing, a needle pierced in their tongue. It is usually said that it is the victory of good over evil.
Being concentrated helps them in forgetting the pain, and it is guaranteed that the effect of light on the needles is highly beneficial for the body... yet, some ancients, having decided not to participate again in these “piercing”, recount that these sharp needles and lethal hooks cannot be pierced anywhere. And that, alas, the simple needle of yesteryear, due to excess and exaggeration, have been transformed into bigger and bigger spikes, and at times several metres long too! The ancients are wise...
The procession starts to move, harnessed men, women in trance, the faithful, members of their family and friends pull the arch, everyone singing and moving with fervour and effort towards the Home of Muruga. Chains fixed by hooks clawed in the skin pull small wheeled-altars, similar to a child’s toys, itself. Some are wearing hobnailed shoes. Green lemons are hanging from the vels, their acid juice bleeding along the scorching hot metal.
The penitence is arduous and the heat intense. Those who do not pierce their tongue, tie a scarf on their mouth so as to keep complete silence. Some women have pierced their tongue with a needle linked to a small chain, similar to a silver fibula, a precious and rare piece of jewellery; they are carrying a pitcher full of “sacred milk” on their head. Those who are not amongst the followers and who have dared to come too close to the arranged pots on the arch are chased away with sticks. Due to their presence, the milk, pure and clear, run the risk of curdling before its arrival to the temple! The temple, most of the time located on the flank of a mountain so as to prompt for further hardships and sufferings, could have been in more accessible places such as along a river or near the sea.
The multicoloured crowd is moving forward slowly, to the rhythm of religious songs coming from loud speakers installed on a vehicle. The latter leads the procession and sometimes carries the statue of Lord Muruga, when it is not placed on a cart specially made for this purpose. Other Tamils, following the procession, are offering drinks to refresh the scorching throats; others are watering the naked feet sore from the scalding road. To one side of the temple, women have garnished leaves of the banana tree with rice and vegetarian food. Everyone will be able to satisfy his hunger once this agreed and willing agony ends.
The penitents enter the temple where benefactress statuettes of their Gods and Goddesses occupy the place of honour as well as the one of Lord Muruga, which is wearing a light contented smile. Little oil lamps are lighted: light, victory of good over evil, is offered to Lord Muruga. The faithful and penitents lay down their offerings such as coconuts, bananas, camphor, incense sticks, and flowers at the feet of the admired or feared Gods. The milk has not curdled! It will partly poured over the Divinity and the rest will be distributed to the faithful, who are thus rewarded. Music, songs and prayers accompany the removal of hooks and vels from the skins glistening with sweat and taught with pain. But, surprisingly enough, there is no blood oozing out. This sacrifice has guaranteed the purification of their soul. Tomorrow, the flag will be brought down and thus bringing an end to the ceremony.
The Mauritian Tamils are a strong, courageous and often demanding minority. During this tribal ceremony, where we want to believe that all the sufferings on Earth can be defeated through faith, everybody would have been closer to their God, would have moved forward in their courage and been more strong in their being. Is all this suffering really justified and necessary? Is it real or fake? Without doubt, however, we cannot be the judges. But then, immense faith is known to make people achieve great things...
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra