GONG Xi Fa Cai, everyone. And, if you are a Hokkien from Penang (or Klang), Keong Hee Huat Chye to you. It’s a time for festivities.
The Chinese New Year holidays are over, but the celebrations are going on and on. It’s “everybody’s birthday” today, the Pai Thnee Kong or Jade Emperor’s feast is set for tomorrow night, and then to top it all off, there’s Chap Goh Meh on Feb 11.
Of course, between the first two and the last, there’s that other big celebration in Penang – Thaipusam.
The Year of the Rooster is a rather special one for Thaipusam celebrations. After all, the presiding deity of the event, Lord Muruga has the rooster as his coat of arms.
Mythology has it that Muruga’s mother, the Goddess Sakthi gave him the vel (a spear) before his quest to defeat the demon Surapadman. En route, he killed the demon’s brothers Tarakasura and Simhamukha. Then, it was down to Surapadman. The warrior god had him beaten, but the demon transformed himself into a mango tree.
The youthful god then threw his vel at the tree, tearing it into two.
Defeated, Surapadman gave up with the two parts of the tree becoming a peacock and a rooster.
The peacock became Lord Muruga’s vehicle and the rooster his coat of arms, seen on his flag.
This story is also about the subduing of ego. The peacock and rooster – animals that preen, strut and crow – are but manifestations of mankind’s ego.
This year, at least in Penang, we see those egos in a battle over what should be Lord Muruga’s vehicle.
Two sides, both adamant that they are right, are at loggerheads over the chariot procession.
A festive event that has been a highlight of Penang’s tourism calendar for decades, has now become an acrimonious one.
On the one side are the chettiars, who have been organising the procession for more than a century.
On the other, the Penang Hindu Endowment Board, led by Deputy Chief Minister Dr P. Ramasamy, which is introducing its new chariot carrying the vel.
Friends in Penang now talk of the golden chariot versus the silver chariot and Ramasamy’s chariot vs the Chettiars’ chariot.
They joke about the champion (gold) chariot and the runner-up (silver) chariot and hope there will be no third-placed (bronze) chariot joining the podium soon.
The question though is: “Which is Lord Muruga’s chariot?”
In the clash of personalities, egos and personal pride, the main reason behind the festival seems to have been forgotten.
The anger spilling over on social media is strong. Good people and good friends are using nasty words against one another, words they have never been known to utter.
People are trying to drag others through the mud, making allegations of all sorts. It is happening on both sides. And it’s ugly.
Me, I stand by my assertion that all this is more about the money that is poured into the festival by the devotees than piety and faith.
Both sides have their eyes on the kitty. The board (or at least its representatives) have been tarring the chettiars and telling devotees not to give their money to “these outsiders from India”. That’s a strange cry from Malaysian Indians.
The chettiars, for their part, are not coming clean on their accounts.
They claim it is all audited and accounted for, but why not take the moral higher ground and make it all public?
Both sides are also fighting to be in the front during the procession, to get to the “paying customer” (the devotees) first.
The organisers of the golden chariot wanted to go first in the morning and the chettiars decided they would go the night before.
The board then declared that it would start its procession two hours earlier the night before, too.
It was almost laughable. Thank God, someone somewhere saw the light and things are going to go on as planned.
Much as I am saddened to see the community divided by people using the name of religion, it makes sense that the two chariots, being rivals rather than together in worship, should be kept apart but continue the more than a century old tradition in Penang.
The devotees have a choice. Peacock or rooster, both are representative of the same god. I just hope there will be no one trying to force the devotees to choose one chariot over another.
They can choose either, or both. What matters is inside the hearts of the faithful.
Still, I have to say the endowment board has done some great work.
The hilltop temple is majestic, the Ganesha temple at the base of the hill is impressive and I am almost awestruck by the new arch leading to the temple. But the millions spent on the new chariot? That’s something I cannot come to terms with.
Like every year for the last half-century or so, I will be in Penang on Wednesday.
For more than a century, from the days of my parents to today when their great-grandchildren are all grown up and ready to have children of their own, there has been only one chariot for us.
This year, there’s a glittering new addition. But you know what they say about all that glitters ... We will just have to wait and see.
The writer, who can be reached at email@example.com, believes talk is cheap. Yes, it would have been much, much cheaper if both sides had just talked and come up with a win-win solution instead of a 2-in-1 chariot procession. And “happy birthday” everybody.