A Participatory Digital Campaign for ICH: Singapore’s Thaipusam Project

Singapore’s digital campaign to engage the Indian community and educate the public about the practices associated with Thaipusam © National Heritage Board, Singapore

Under Our SG Heritage Plan, Singapore has been stepping up its efforts to strengthen research and documentation of its ICH, increase community participation in such research and documentation work, and leverage new technologies to promote ICH and increase both public awareness and appreciation of Singapore’s ICH elements.

As part of these efforts, the National Heritage Board of Singapore (NHB) has partnered with source communities and use new technologies for safeguarding ICH. One such recent partnership is “A Journey of Devotion—Celebrating Thaipusam in Singapore,” where the NHB partnered the Hindu Endowments Board and Indian temples to document the festival of Thaipusam and produce digital resources related to the festival.

About Thaipusam

Thaipusam is an important festival among Singapore’s Tamil Hindu community, and it is celebrated every year on the full-moon day of the Tamil month of Thai. For many believers, Thaipusam is a time of devotion, sacrifice, and thanksgiving dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Murugan, who symbolizes bravery, power and virtue.

The festival commemorates Lord Murugan’s victory over evil forces, and one of the most recognizable elements of Thaipusam is the ceremonial procession of the kavadi-bearers—men who walk carrying large metal structures known as kavadi that are fixed with spikes or hooks that pierce their bodies.

During Thaipusam, kavadi-bearers and their supporters walk along a designated route, which starts at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road, and ends at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road. These kavadi-bearers walk barefooted along this route while other worshippers carry offerings such as paalkudams or milk pots, fruit, and flowers.

Live music forms a key part of the Thaipusam procession, and hymns are often sung by friends and family while religious songs (known as bhajans) are also performed by groups of musicians who follow the kavadi-bearers to boost their spirits as they make their arduous journey from temple to temple.

Along the route, there will also be community volunteers at various thaneer panthal or water points, and these volunteers will pour water onto the feet of kavadi-bearers to provide much-needed relief from walking barefoot on the hot tarmac and to offer food and water to the rest of the community.

A kavadi-bearer being cheered on by friends and family near the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple © National Heritage Board, Singapore

A Digital Campaign Journey

When conceptualizing the campaign, NHB sought feedback from a younger audience (18–35 years old) and noted that most youths did not understand Thaipusam—what it represents and its associated practices. To better engage this younger and more digitally savvy audience, NHB put together a digital engagement plan to create content that would be engaging, informative, and participatory.

The title “A Journey of Devotion” was chosen with reference to two aspects of Thaipusam. First, it refers to the physical journey as devotees walk along their route. Second, it also refers to the personal journey devotees take upon themselves in the lead-up to Thaipusam, which includes making their own kavadis and adopting fasting practices that include consuming only vegetarian meals for up to forty-eight days.

For the campaign, NHB decided to focus on telling the story of the festival through the perspective of four practitioners: a kavadi-bearer, a piercer, a musician, and a water point volunteer. By focusing on these individuals, NHB hopes to make the content more relatable to the audience. The video interviews were then uploaded on NHB’s Facebook and Instagram platforms, and to date, have attracted more than 650,000 views.

NHB also noted that Thaipusam has always been a vibrant and colorful festival that attracts photographers every year. As a result and as part of NHB’s efforts to increase community participation in ICH documentation, NHB created the hashtag #Thaipusamsg on Instagram to encourage community photo contributions. This has resulted in the collection of a wide array of photographs.

Finally, NHB created a comprehensive NHB’s webpage at https://www.roots.sg/thaipusam, which includes photographs, a brief history of the festival, and how it was brought into Singapore by early migrants as well as relevant artifacts in the National Collection that are associated with the festival, such as the kavadi from the collection of the Asian Civilizations Museum and photographs of the festival from the early twentieth century from the collection of the National Museum of Singapore.

Moving forward, NHB will be developing and implementing similar digital campaigns to document and promote other ICH festivals and practices from other communities such as the upcoming campaign on Ramadan, a month-long fasting period observed by Muslims in Singapore in the lead up to Hari Raya Puasa, also known as the Day of Celebration.