Thaipusam – not for the squeamish

A little disclaimer early on that the following photos might make you uncomfortable.

But today I’m going to blog about Thaipusam.  Happy Thaipusam, everybody!  It’s a festival of thanksgiving in Hindu culture, celebrated in countries such as India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia…quite a few more, and of course, Singapore.  I won’t go into a history lesson about what exactly it celebrates, or which gods it honors, because I would literally just be plagiarizing wikipedia… but here’s what I do know.

There is a lot of piercing involved, mostly done by men in VERY ornate manners.  The men will carry these extravagant (read: heavy!) pieces of art covered in gold, silver, feathers, tassles, symbols, etc…all suspended by harnesses and long spikes that go directly into their chests & backs.  They will then set out carrying their “kavadi” (burden) on a pilgrimage walk of about 4 km…from one major temple to another, where they will end their journey in prayers & offerings.  They are accompanied along the route by their family and friends, many of whom are singing or playing drums, and all of whom (who? whom?) do this completely barefoot.  It’s really something to experience.

I’m not doing doing the holiday any justice whatsoever with my explanation, and I mean no offense to anyone.  It was strangely beautiful, although I know seems crazy that such seemingly barbaric rituals are in actuality a form of thanksgiving, gratitude, and devotion.

A friend from the condo asked me a couple of weeks ago if I’d like to come along with her and some friends to photograph the event, and these diehard women planned to leave for Little India at 5:30 in the morning to catch the early pilgrims, and beat the crowd (or is it the heat?).  Waking up at unnecessary hours to do something unconventional and a little gutsy is COMPLETELY up my alley (remember my spontaneous broadway audition all those years ago? Ha ha…) so I instantly agreed to come along.  It was 100% worth the loss of sleep, and it was an experience I’ll not soon forget.

Little India before the sun even wakes up…Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

this is where it gets real…in addition to carrying giant works of art, you’ll see men who have a hundred limes hooked to their backs, or these big meat hooks linking them to a chariot of sorts, or pulling their family along.  I have a pretty strong stomach, but this made even me grimace a little…

This guy looks like Dr. Seuss’ worst nightmare:
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We saw a few pairs of people carrying a sort of weight, hanging from long sugarcane sticks.  A kind old man whispered in my ear that there are actually BABIES in those bundles.  I was a little horrified at first, but then quickly realized that the babe was probably enjoying the best swaying nap of all time…
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It seemed as though yellow/orange was the appropriate color to wear for this holiday, and many pilgrims carried silver jars on their heads.  These are full of milk, which they will pour out as an offering when they reach the final temple…
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This is the starting temple.  Behind it is a giant circus tent, for lack of a better word, where hundreds of people prepare for their pilgrimage.  They will have family & friends help them assemble their kavadi, and prepare their milk pots.  This is where they exit the temple to begin their journey…

We thought that might be all we were able to see, but Ho Boy were we wrong!  Some people encouraged us to find our way inside, and so we did!  But first, please take off your shoes…
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It was a total hive of excitement, and an onslaught of smells, sights, and sounds (and feels.  Barefoot, remember?  Lots of burnt offerings all over the ground.  Tread carefully!)  Cluster after cluster of families helping their brave soldier don his kavadi, yes…this means watching people piercing them a hundred times over.  It was awesome.   And crazy.  If you care to watch a video, I suggest wearing headphones, turning your volume all the way up, and burning some incense to get a real feel for what this was like…

And the final touch to this whole installment is probably the hardest to watch.  The person being impaled will stick out their tongue, and then someone will put a spike horizontally through their cheeks, and yes, straight through their tongue.  But WAIT.  After that, they put one more vertical spike through the tip of their tongue for good measure.  This means, no talking, swallowing, no moving your tongue at all!  I read that this is an act of complete devotion and faith…not being able to talk gives a more meditative experience as they make this difficult journey.  It was amazing to watch these piercings take place, and see such a calm and unflinching face on the man.  They are being prayed over and, fruit offerings are burned all around, which is why they say they experience no pain, and amazingly, no bleeding at all.  One of the pictures below shows some footwear I noticed one of the devotees wearing.  Show of hands who thinks they could walk 2.5 miles in those kicks…

A family affair…
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Once people are all loaded up and ready to go, they make their way toward the temple exit…which completely bottlenecks and backs up, and most people are forced to stand around and wait for upwards of an hour just to get outside.  They have to WAIT for an hour, carrying what can weigh up to 60 pounds of adornments on their body, supported by spikes, for their turn to walk 4 kilometers down the road.  Did I mention that they have been awake all night, and have been fasting for 48 hours besides?
These people really believe in what they are doing.  It’s remarkable.

After about an hour of simply taking photos, I started to feel claustrophobic from the banging of drums and the haze of incense…so I made my way back outside to my shoes, and shortly thereafter, to a Starbucks for a latte.  Forgive me, Lord Murugan.

I am thankful to have been a witness to this important Hindu holiday.  It was beautiful, and I feel like I understand just marginally more how important their faith is to them.
But mostly I am thankful to not have a spear pushed through my tongue.
I already did that once in college thank you.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sanne says:

    What a great report you wrote!
    I love your writing, it takes me witch you. But nevertheless it is a frightening thing to see. What a devotion these people show and how painful it must be!
    Thank you for writing this and for the pictures! It would be too much to handle in real life.


  2. Elizabeth jones says:

    Thank you for getting up early and sharing this. Wow and ouch…I feel grateful that we don’t have to perform to show our devotion. I could almost smell it!


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