Carrying Kavadi (yoke) and walking barefoot - A Hindu tradition

Palani_Murugan (Karthikaya) -Thai pusam pathayatra (waking to the temple barefoot, chanting Lords mantra or names.

A typical kavadi.
A  festival occurring in the Malayalam month Makaram (January-February), the day of the star Pooyam around Pournami (Full Moon) is celebrated as  Thypooyam. According the legend  there  was a demon named Tharakasuran who  was  troubling the Rishis - Saints. Lord Muruga (Karthikeya) was called by his parents Lord Shiva and Parvati  and  given  the job  of  destroying  the Asura - demon for good. Lord  Muruga set off with the blessings of his parents, to destroy the  powerful demon. He carried twelve weapons with him, eleven of which were  given to him by  his  father Lord Shiva  and the 'Vel' (spear) - soolam or trident given by his mother Parvati. Lord  Muruga destroyed  Tharakasuran  on the Poosam Nakshatram  day in the Tamil month of Thai and hence Thypoosam  is  celebrated in all Murugan temples with great fanfare  and  devotion and  the  devotees on this day throng the Murugan- Kathikays temples.

The Kavadi

Generally, people take a vow  in the name of  Lord-Karthikaya by carrying a Kavadi for the sake of tiding over  great difficulties or impediments in their lives. On completion of  kavadi offer, the devotees who bore the Kavadi  get a sense of satisfaction, spiritual elation and  awakening of their  spiritual well-being. This  method  of  devotion is unique in Hinduism, widely followed in Southern India, in particular, Tamil Nadu. Scientifically this improves one's 'vaigragya' or  steadfast commitment, mental prowess and concentration.

Carrying a Kavadi  across the shoulder is a solemn  vow  which People  undertake every year, praying for prosperity, free from worries and overall welfare of their families. It is symbolic  of humbleness, shedding of ego and deep faith in god. He is expected to be a  charitable, humble human being  through out his life.  So the devotee takes a pledge of abstinence for a  certain  period  of  time and travels to Palani barefoot, unmindful of the vagaries of weather. He  should lead a  life of simplicity and humbleness  without ego  during this time, making him a good human being.

The Kavadi, which is some thing like  a small yoke carried  across  the  shoulder,  comes in different  shapes and sizes, from the simple one commonly used by hawkers (a wooden stick with two baskets at each end, slung across the shoulder) to the costly palanquin-type structure, profusely  bedecked  with flowers frequently  interwoven  with  peacock feathers. Peacock is the favorite mount of Lord  Muruga.  The  kavadi can be taken for a rent in the various  Kavadi shops at Adivaram - entrance to the hill temple at the bottom.

The two small baskets hanging  at  each  end of the Kavadi  contain sandal wood paste - Chandanam, milk, rose water, tender coconut water, bhasmam, Sesame oil (Nallaennai), etc that the devotees have vowed to offer the Lord.

Among the kavadi bearers, the orthodox devotee  among them, and especially those who do it as a ''Sadhana'', collect  these  articles  by begging (Bhiksha in Sanskrit). They travel on foot from village to village, and beg from door to door. People never hesitate to offer them any of the above items.

Some devotees undertake padayatra -  walking barefoot from home to one of the shrines of Lord Subramanya, bearing the Kavadi all the way and collecting materials for the offering. Thousands of people in groups undertake this devotional padayatra, covering more than 100 kilometers. Walking barefoot in a hot tropical place like Tamil Nadu is a strenuous one and requires robust  body and mind, besides endurance. While walking people drink  lot of salted buttermilk or coconut water to avoid dehydration and fatigue. They halt for the night after 7PM and resume their journey in the early morning  after taking bath, doing prayer, etc.

The Kavadi  bearer has to strictly  observe various rules while under taking Kavadi offer - between the start of the Kavadi journey, and the day of the offering. He has to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the Kavadi, and at the time of offering it to the Lord.

He wears a saffron - colored cloth and carries a conical scarlet cap and a cane silver-capped at both ends. Strict  observance of silence and  celibacy, abstain from  non-vegetarian food and intoxicating drinks is a must.

 Some of the Kavadi bearers, go one step farther and engage  in  higher level of spiritual Sadhana with vairgaya (determination). 
Palani Pathayathirai.Palani temple, Tamil Nadu, India
To please the God and to show their limit of endurance, they themselves indulge  in  various forms of self-torture, using a small spear or vel. Vel is Lord Muruga's weapon with which he killed many demons.  Some pass a sharp little spear (“vel”) through their tongue, which is made to protrude out of the mouth. Others may pass a long small spear through the cheeks. This sort of piercing is done in other parts of the body also. Lemons are  stuck on the sharp end of the spear at both sides and the juice  and sacred  ash (Vibhudhi) have curative powers and inhibit bleeding.

The Kavadi - bearers enjoy doing this kind of sadhana with religious fervor and devotional ecstasy. It is true that this rigorous religious undertaking boosts their confidence level and  trust that are essential for man's success.