SINGAPORE - Thaipusam throbbed with a new beat this year, as live music was allowed at the festival for the first time in over 40 years.
On Sunday (Jan 24), thousands lined the 4km route from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road to watch Hindu devotees celebrate the fulfilment of their vows by carrying kavadis - decorated steel and wood structures - and pots of milk.
Mr R. Jayachandran, chairman of the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), said there were about 330 kavadi carriers this year, compared to 250 last year.
"We had a lot of publicity this year, and allowing music which encourages the devotees' spiritual focus, I think these have helped to create a more meaningful experience," he said.
More than 20,000 devotees are taking part in this year's festival, which falls on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai, and is in honour of Lord Murugan.
Apart from three live music stages in Hastings Road, Short Street and Dhoby Ghaut Green, this year's procession also saw seven music transmission points and wider lanes for devotees. The HEB also halved the cost of carrying a kavadi to $75.
Among the devotees at the Sri Srinavasa Perumal temple on Sunday morning who were preparing for the procession was Asean Para Games bronze medallist Kalai Vanen, 57, a power lifter who lost his left leg to cancer 30 years ago.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam joined in the celebrations on Sunday morning and spoke to devotees in and around the temple.
He told reporters that the mood was positive, and devotees appreciated the new arrangements for the festival.
"They said: 'Look, this is what we wanted'... It is quite energising, they feel good," he said.
Regulations on live music were recently reviewed after the HEB conducted 10 feedback sessions with members of the Hindu community. All said music was integral to the festival, with many wanting traditional Indian instruments to be part of it.
The rules were relaxed after the board held further discussions with the Government and organisers have deployed more staff and volunteers to ensure the event runs smoothly.
Mr Shanmugam noted that this year, there are more police officers as well as volunteers on the ground, not just to help with security but also to assist people.
"The key is to ensure that a small group doesn't hijack the whole festival and create law and order issues," he said.
He noted that on Saturday night, there were issues when some people did not observe queues and climbed over the walls to get into the crowded temple.
But the majority of devotees helped to make the procession run smoothly, he added.
"There are safety issues, beyond law and order. Last year, the festival was hijacked by a small group who attacked the police. We hope that doesn't happen."
Last year's Thaipusam saw the arrest of three men who assaulted police officers after another group was told to stop the use of traditional drums by organisers.
Asked about the possibility of further relaxing the rules, Mr Shanmugam said as a rule, the Government did not allow any religious foot processions due to law and order concerns.
But exceptions were made for Thaipusam, as well as two other Hindu festivals, and there is a need to be careful when further changes are made.
Sunday's procession saw several hundred route marshals and volunteers, who included a team of 25 Indian construction workers from Multiheight Scaffolding.
"It's a holiday for us, so we came to volunteer, and we like the crowds and music," said three-time volunteer site superintendent Manibalan Dhanabalan, 33.
Also involved were local grassroots leaders, such as retiree A. K. Latchumanan, 65, who said: "I've carried the kavadi before. I know the old-timers, they call me big brother. We get things done."
Also at the event was Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong, whose Moulmein-Cairnhill ward includes parts of the route.
Mr Shanmugam said he was also struck by the number of non-Indians participating in the festival, including Chinese who carried the kavadi or supported others doing so.
There were also onlookers from various races, including National University of Singapore student Tan Lien Chew, 21, who is doing a project on multiculturalism.
"I wasn't sure what to expect but it was quite an eye-opening experience," he said.