Kavadi Attam is a dance performed by the devotees during the ceremonial worship of Murugan, the Tamil God of War. 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 the God Murugan.
The kavadi itself is steeped in mythology. At Mount Kailas, Lord Shiva entrusted the dwarf saint sage Agastya with two hillocks, with instructions to carry and install them in South India. But the sage left them in a forest and later asked his disciple, Idumban to get them. Idumban found the two hillocks, but could not initially lift them, until he obtained divine help. Near Palani in South India – where to this day there is a famous shrine of Murugan — Idumban put the hillocks down to rest awhile. When he attempted to continue with his journey, he found that the hillocks were immovable.
Idumban sought the help of a scantily dressed youth, but the youth claimed the hillocks belonged to him. In the ensuing scuffle, Idumban was defeated. Idumban then realised that the youth was Lord Murugan. Idumban pleaded to be pardoned and asked that anyone who comes to the hills to worship Murugan with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a rod, may be granted his heart’s desire. Idumban’s wish was granted. And so the kavadi came to play its role in Hindu festivals.
Kavadi varies in shape and size from the simple shape of a street hawker’s storehouse to the costly palanquin structure, flower-bedecked and decoratively interwoven with peacock feathers. There are two small containers on either side of the Kavadi which contains jaggery sealed with a topping of the ash (Vibhuoothi). This container with the content is called as the ‘Muthirai’. The Kavadi bearers walk bear footed from their home town to the Murugan temple of their choice and offer their prayers and the muthirai to the Lord on the Thai Poosam day.