SINGAPORE - Striding steadily, civil servant Murali Raj Unbalagan stepped into the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple carrying a 40kg kavadi, feeling a sense of joy as he heads to the centre of the temple in Tank Road.
The 32-year-old had completed his annual foot journey, fulfilling a thanksgiving vow he made 14 years ago.
His 3½ hour journey, which began at 7am at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road, was made easier this year by the relaxing of the rules on music along the procession route, Mr Murali told The Straits Times on Monday (Jan 21).
Besides the playing of devotional songs and music through loudspeakers at 35 spots along the route - 12 more than last year - the music was allowed to start an hour earlier, at 7am, and stopped at 10.30pm, an hour before the celebrations ended.
This was also the first Thaipusam since 1973 that percussion instruments were allowed to be played by friends, relatives and professional religious singers accompanying the devotees.
"Music is essential in a Thaipusam procession. It's not easy carrying a kavadi for 3km and the upbeat devotional songs boosted my energy and spirit, and helped me to take my mind off the fatigue and stay focused on completing my vows," Mr Murali said.
He was carrying a decorated steel and wood kavadi pinned to his torso with hooks and piercings, while a dozen hooks pierced into each thigh had tiny containers filled with red sugar offerings.
Mr Murali was among more than 250 kavadi-bearers and 8,600 devotees carrying pots of milk as offerings in the celebration to honour Lord Murugan, who represents virtue, youth and power, and is also the destroyer of evil.
The kavadi-bearers were accompanied by musicians playing traditional Indian percussion instruments, including the ganjira drum and one of either a thavil, dhol or khol.
More than 20,000 people, including devotees, took part in the procession, which attracted crowds of Singaporeans and visitors, clicking away at the colourful event.
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who joined in the celebrations, told reporters that feedback from people about the new music rules has been "very positive".
Following feedback from the Hindu community, the authorities have been relaxing the rules since 2012 when music was allowed to be played over broadcast systems at designated spots along the procession route.
In 1973, the playing of all music was banned after fights with competing groups.
But over the years, steps have been taken to allow music, noted Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister.
"Last year, when I met everyone, I said, 'Look, we want to make it a better experience.'
"It is a balance between making sure people have a good spiritual experience; good kavadi-carrying experience, and at the same time also looking at some of the law and order aspects," he said.
When asked whether there will be a dialogue later on this year's procession, Mr Shanmugam said his ministry is in constant discussion with the Hindu Endowments Board, which will be collecting feedback from the people.
"We will take it a step at a time... (and) decide further how many sessions are necessary."
Mr Sivakumaran Sathappan, secretary of Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, told ST: "We can only ask for more music concession from the authorities if this year's Thaipusam is a success, with no unexpected behaviour. Hence, we need the cooperation of devotees to stick to the guidelines."
Mr Subash Gunaseelan, 36, a kavadi-bearer for 21 years, lauded the new music rules.
He hired a group of devotional singers who chanted to the beat of the thavil. "With the beat and the singing, I bounced while walking and the bounce of the kavadi took the weight off me.
"In the past, without any music, the journey felt very long and we had to rush. Now, the music makes carrying the kavadi enjoyable as well," said Mr Subash, a safety coordinator.
Thaipusam, which typically takes place in a 24-hour period, ends at 11.30pm on Monday.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu was the guest of honour at the celebrations on Monday morning. She visited both temples: Sri Srinivasa Perumal and Sri Thendayuthapani.
"What is impressive and memorable for me is that there are many people of different races and religions here. It is a way to understand about the religious significance of Thaipusam to Hindus."
She added: "It goes a long way towards promoting a multiracial, multi-religious society."