Thaipusam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February).
The word Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam. This particular star is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel "spear" so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. It is commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan's birthday.
The Kavadi Attam "Burden Dance"is the ceremonial sacrifice and offering performed by devotees during the worship of Murugan. It is often performed during the festival of Thaipusam and emphasizes debt bondage. The Kavadi itself is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from Murugan.
Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for 48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Murugan. The kavadi bearer observes celibacy and consumes only certain types of foods known as Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God. On the day of the festival, devotees shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route, while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens).
At its simplest, this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. The simplest kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders to the temple. In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks.
Thaipusam, according to tradition, said to have been supposedly created during one of the battles between the Asuras and the Devas. At one point, the latter were defeated several times by the former. The Devas were unable to resist the onslaught of the Asura forces. In despair, they approached Shiva and entreated to give them an able leader under whose heroic leadership they might obtain victory over the Asuras. They surrendered themselves completely and prayed to Shiva.
Shiva granted their request by creating the mighty warrior, Skanda, out of his own power or Achintya Shakti. He at once assumed leadership of the celestial forces, inspired them and defeated the Asura forces and to recognise that day the people created the festival, Thaipusam.
According to Skanda Puranam, the legend of Murugan, and Thirupugal which are divine verses on Murugan, adhere to Shaivam principles. Murugan is the embodiment of Shiva's light and wisdom and devotees pray to him to overcome the obstacles they face, as He is the divine vanquisher of evil. The motive of Thaipusam festival is to pray to God to receive his grace so that bad traits are destroyed.