Last month, I packed my camera and headed for a Hindu temple downtown to see if I could get some street shots of Thaipusam. This sacred but colourful event is dedicated to the Hindu god of war, Murugan, youngest son of Shiva and Parvati. The word “Thaipusam” is derived from the month of Thai and the name of the star, Pusam. Thaipusam is not only celebrated in India and Sri Lanka but also in South East Asian countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, which all have a large Tamil population.
Contrary to popular belief, Thaipusam is not about Lord Murugan’s birthday, but rather, a day to mark his gift of a spear from his mother, Parvati. It is believed that the Goddess Parvati presented her son with a spear to conquer the army of Tarakasura and combat their evil deeds. Thaipusam therefore celebrates victory of good over evil.
One aspect that makes Thaipusam so unique is the way that devotees pay penance to Lord Murugan. They do this by piercing their bodies with hooks, skewers and small lances called ‘vel’. Devotees pierce their tongues and cheeks to impede speech in order that they may devote all their concentration on Lord Murugan.
Why would anyone be willing to undergo such pain and torture, you may ask. Hindus take a vow for the main purpose of averting a great calamity. For example, a devotee may have a parent or child faced with a life-threatening sickness. The devotee prays to the deity, Murugan, to grant the family member a lease of life, in return for which the devotee will take a vow and dedicate a kavadi to the deity. A kavadi is a simple but heavy metal and wooden structure which devotees attach to their bodies and carry through the crowd. Some of the more massive ones hold long skewers, with the sharpened end designed to pierce the skin of the bearer’s torso.
About 50 days before Thaipusam, devotees begin preparations by cleansing themselves through prayer, fasting, abstinence and adhering to a strictly vegetarian diet. On the day itself, devotees engage in prayers with priests and enter into a trance-like state with incessant drumming and chanting, in preparation for piercing. Amazingly, the devotees who pierce their tongues, cheeks and faces with skewers hardly bleed and say they experience very little pain! Once they get into a trance, they enter a different world, pulling chariots and kavadis for long distances, with hooks embedded in their backs .
The most famous kavadi pilgrimage during Thaipusam takes place at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, attracting over a million people each year. Devotees, some in a trance and carrying the kavadi while being supported by family, friends and relatives, reach the 42.7-metre high statue of Lord Murugan at the Caves’ stairway entrance and climb 272 steps to reach the temple on the hill.
The following photos may be quite disturbing for some readers so I would advise you to stop reading beyond this point. As for me, I spent my growing years watching these sacred rituals so I am not squirmish about them. I have my mother and relatives to thank for that. Since young, I had to accompany them to Hindu and Chinese temples found deep inside the rubber and oil palm plantations where these rituals would take place. At that young age, I wasn’t really concerned about watching a devotee entering into a state of trance. It seemed very natural to me. Rather, I was worried that the devotee would bleed profusely. Generally, I hate the sight of blood, even until today! I would imagine the devotee dancing in the procession with blood running down both sides of his mouth. (Just like in the Western movies after the cowboy gets shot and is about to die in the arms of his best friend).
“Don’t worry,” my mother said. “There won’t be any blood.” She was right!