Taking a Goddess for a Bath
A deity is carried out to sea in Teluk Bahang in a ceremony that is as elaborate as it is breathtaking.
At dawn on February 22, the 120-year-old Sri Singhamuga Kaliamman Temple in Teluk Bahang buzzes with activity. It is the day of the Teppa Tiruvizla, the 43rd floating chariot festival.
A celebration to thank the goddess, Sri Singhamuga Kaliamman, for her good grace and to beseech her to continue providing devotees with protection and prosperity, Teppa Tiruvizla only takes place during Masi Magam, the 11th month in the Tamil calendar. It is a day when temple idols are taken out for a ceremonial bath. Thousands travel from all over Malaysia to take part in the festivities.
The day begins with morning prayers; the devotees who attend bring milk as an offering to the goddess. In the afternoon, the floating chariot is carefully pushed into the sea by temple president Sadha Sivam, the youth club members and other temple members. Later, after evening prayers, the idol of the goddess is carried to the chariot. Devotees also release miniature chariots alongside the goddess’s chariot, making it quite a pretty view.
According to Sadha, it is no easy task putting together the chariot. “It weighs from three to five tonnes because its base consists of metal drums while the flooring is made of hard wood. All the components need to be screwed together, but before that each drum has to be checked individually to ensure it is safe. It takes about 10 days to complete the chariot. The first time we did this, we used a dragon boat, but it was too big and too difficult to mount the idol on the boat,” he says.
As the leader, Sadha personally sees to the matters of the event; since he is retired, he also spends most of his time helping out in the temple. He is the fifth president of the temple and has been in the position since 1993.
The Sri Singhamuga Kaliamman Temple was established by K. Kalimuthu in 1896. Initially a small shrine, it later expanded. According to former temple secretary S. Ramanagaran, “Despite being old, the temple is still very sturdy. The temple was last spruced up with tinkering here and there, and a new coat of paint. Apart from that, it surprisingly doesn’t need much work. The renovation projects are usually carried out by the temple and the cost is supported by the devotees and sponsors.” He adds that the state government donated RM10,000 a few years ago.
What makes the temple special is that it is dedicated to Singhamuga Kaliamman, an incarnation of the goddess Amman. According to Ramanagaran, it is the only such temple in Penang. In the past, the area was mostly populated by Indians who were mainly fishermen. They believed that the goddess would protect them from harm when they were out at sea and also provide them with an abundance of fish.
Part of the temple’s appeal is its location – in most temples, the idols of the gods or goddesses would be facing other manmade structures, whereas in this temple the goddess is facing the sea. It is also considered a good omen for fishermen as it gives the impression that the goddess is watching over them when they are at sea.
Today, the temple is also a popular tourist destination; according to temple priest Arumugam Sinayah, travellers from the US, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka are the most common visitors. The next big celebration at the temple will be Navaratheri, a nine-day festival that is celebrated in the middle of October for the goddesses Parvathi, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. It is said that it was during this time that the goddess Durga finally managed to annihilate Mahishasura , a demon who was tormenting villagers.
There will also be the Maha Kumba Abishegam ritual in another eight years’ time. It is a purification ritual that is performed once every 12 years to consecrate a new temple or re-consecrate an old one. It is believed that by doing so, the power of the deity is reinstated, bringing positive energy to the temple. Meanwhile, Sadha is glad – Teppa Tiruvizla is still celebrated with overwhelming response from devotees, making all the hard work worthwhile.