Thaipusam … ever hear of it? I vaguely remember seeing something about this on Nat Geo TV a long time ago, but never in my life did I think I would get to attend this festival in person. When I heard that this would be happening soon in Singapore, there was no way I was going to miss it.
Thaipusam is a celebration of faith and penance, during the full moon of the Tamil month called Thai, which falls in January or February on the western calendar. “Pusam” refers to the brightest star during this time. This colorful holiday is rich in legends and honors Murugan, a Hindu god and son of Shiva, destroyer of all things evil, and his goddess consort, Parvati.
Murugan is often depicted next to a peacock, his preferred mode of transport, holding his vel. He is venerated throughout the year as the Hindu war god and protector of deities. Thaipusam provides an opportunity for worshipers to thank him for granting their wishes and defeating the demons that inhabit their everyday lives. Many also choose to show their devotion and do penance for transgressions by carrying Kavadi burdens.
Some bear simple Kavadi such as milk jugs, while others pierce their mouth, cheeks, and skin with vel-like skewers and rods as a demonstration of their faith. Others balance large, complex alters with colorful displays of flowers, gods, and peacock feathers. These structures can weigh more than 100 pounds and are supported by metal hooks and skewers, which pierce the upper bodies.
The men participating in this celebration commit to doing this three years in a row, (however many do it every single year) and they begin with a 40 day fast … no meat, no sex, no cutting their hair or nails. They mentally prepare themselves for this day, and it is believed that if they have properly prepared, then there will be no blood when they are pierced.
Trent and I started our day by arriving at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and watched as the devotees prepared for their procession. We were able to enter the temple, and literally watch as the men had their bodies pierced. I thought that I would be completely grossed out by this, but instead found it so fascinating that I just couldn’t get enough.
***Got your attention now, don’t I? If you are grossed out easily, then stop reading! Graphic pictures coming up!! ***
They began by piercing the forehead, this is meant to stop the evil thoughts.Next they take a skewer and pierce their cheeks, from one side, through the mouth and out the other cheek. Some would then have a lime one the end of each skewer.Next they would pierce the tongue, leaving the rod in, forcing them to not be able to shut their mouths. This was to keep them from having evil words.
Next they would proceed to pierce their bodies, each choosing a their own level of penance. There were so many extremes of this, some had small hooks all over their backs with limes hanging from each hook, and others had small containers filled with coconut milk.
Some had a corset type of binding that would support the Kavadi, while others did not have the binding and instead had the four giant rods pierce their skin directly, and that was the only source of support for their giant alters. The participants friends and family were volunteers that were helping with the binding and piercings. No they are not medical professionals, they were just volunteers with no back ground or training on how to do this.
We saw a few who had large hooks in their backs, with ropes pulling a big wooden cart that had a diety on it. Sounds pretty incredible, right?
The thing is, that after they were all pierced and prepared, they then walked a 4.5 kilometer route to the destination temple. So the men who had hooks with ropes pulling the carts … pulled them four 4.5 kilometers. I spoke to one man who said the journey took him 5 hours to walk. It is a slow walk, not meant to be rushed, and there is no passing. If they catch up to the person in front of them, they wait.
The women are not allowed to pierce themselves, so some choose to do penance by carrying a jug of coconut milk on their heads. They use both hands to hold the container the entire time, careful not to spill the milk, which they present at the temple.
Many wives and daughters choose to walk alongside their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, supporting them, singing to them, holding their hands, trying to give them strength to continue.
One of the most exciting moments is when the devotees finally reach the end of their journey at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. The ones carrying alters will stop before entering for one last jiggle of the skewers piercing their body to increase the pain in a movement called “The Dance of the Peacock”.
The line to enter the temple was long, and even though they were exhausted, they waited patiently. As the worshipers entered the temple, many are so overcome with joy that they broke down in tears. Some appeared to be in a trance as they raised their hands to the sky and gave thanks. At the alter the women hand over the coconut milk, their arms are stiff, they cannot move or let go of the container, they cry with pain as their arms are forced to move, and they continue on to the tent where the skewers are removed.
This part was just as fascinating as watching them get pierced. We saw some men who appeared ready to pass out, in so much pain and exhausted. Their wives would be holding their hands as the participants friends would quickly and methodically remove all the body piercings, while a young female was standing by burning some blessed papers in an urn. As a rod was removed, a finger was dipped in lime juice, and then in the ashes, and placed on the hole in the skin. This is an antiseptic, would promote healing and lessen the pain. If there was blood, then the participant wasn’t properly prepared and would be ashamed. I only saw a few drops of blood. All day. No kidding.
The rods in the face were the last removed, and seemed to be the most painful. There would be loud chanting and singing, some drums, and squeezing hands. It was unbelievable. Most participants would immediately sit down to rest, but I did see one young man, who after his two buddies took out his tongue piercings, they slapped him on the back, and said, “let’s go”, he gathered up his bags, and off he went, like nothing happened.
Singapore hosts one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations in Asia, the other being in Maylasia. This was probably the most fascinating thing I will ever see in my life, with the images of the day forever burned in my memory.
For those of you who can handle really gross stuff, I took an awesome video of a young man having his cheeks and tongue pierced. I was up close, and was stunned when he didn’t even flinch. Watch closely, you’ll see him getting ready & wetting tongue just before being pierced.