Thaipusam festival: Body piercing equals devotion and thanksgiving

Thaipusam has passed and I’m wondering where I was. Back in November I planned to write a post, but it was too early. Now I’m late. But, considering that this festival is probably the most astounding event I’ve ever attended, consider this is a lesson in religion and culture–and perhaps some politics. The first year I lived in Singapore, one of the few countries where the holiday is celebrated, I blearily got out of bed 4:30 a.m. to head to Little India to catch some Thaipusam action. I had no idea how far people would go to prove their devotion. Intense is putting it mildly. This picture is just the beginning.

As with many aspects of Hinduism, this holiday, celebrated between the end of January or beginning of February, depending on the Tamil calendar, is a bit complex. Here’s the condensed version. As with many religious holidays, Hindu and otherwise, Thaipusam celebrates good winning over evil. In this case, the celebration commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan (also called Subramaniam) the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, as well as, his victory over the evil demon Soorapadman when he used the lance given to him by Parvati to vanquish the demon’s powers.

To give thanks to Lord Murugan for his banishment of evil, and for any good that has come their way over difficult times, some devotees will carry a kavadi a long distance to a Hindu temple. In Singapore, devotees start at one temple and walk three kilometers to another. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, folks start off in the city and walk several miles to Batu Cave. At the cave, there are 272 steps to navigate to reach the entrance. (photo by nina.bruja, Flickr to right.)

A kavadi is typically a large metal frame decorated with colored paper, flowers or fruit. Some couple the carrying of a kavadi with piercing their bodies and/or faces with steel rods. Others will do things like hang oranges off their backs with steel fish hook like contraptions. Others will pull a kavadi that has been attached to their bodies with hooks. There’s more than one way to show devotion.

This festival is not just for devotees, others participate as well. There are food vendors, people selling trinkets, folks going to the temple to pray, and the devotees’ entourage of friends and family who offer support and help.

As squeamish as I am, I was amazed by the lack of bleeding by these piercings. Even when the steel was removed, I didn’t see any. People fast to purify themselves and to get ready for this, plus they psych themselves into a trance-like state in preparation for the piercing. Men are mostly the ones who go for major piercings. I did see some women pierce their cheeks.

It would be great to have a smell function so I could send the scent of the flowers, coconut milk, candles and incense your way. I can’t think of any other experience that is as much of a sensory overload as this one.

One detail I found quite interesting is that, although this holiday originated in India, it’s not widely celebrated there. The government, from what I understand, is not thrilled with it. One of the reasons it’s celebrated in Singapore is partly because of the large Tamil population there and the fact that Singapore believes in fostering religious freedom. Here’s a YouTube video that captures the essence of what happens in Singapore during th event. I’ve also been to Batu Caves, but months after Thaipusam. There were still remnants of kavadis.