There are many colourful Hindu festivals in the calendar celebrated globally but none as quite as vivid and in many ways, as excruciating to watch as Thaipusam.
Originating in the Tamil Nadu region, it is celebrated throughout South India and worldwide where ethnic Tamil communities exist, most notably in Malaysia and Singapore. This is a Hindu festival, like many others, rooted in ancient mythology, in this case celebrating the heroic warrior Lord Murugan.
For most young Tamils, it is an important annual ritual to embrace their tradition and culture in a modern world, but for a sizeable number of hardcore devotees, this is taken to a whole new level. There are several facets to Thaipusam, which includes prayer, the giving of offerings and a vivid procession but it is the graphic depiction of blind faith that really leaves a lasting image.
The ones to look out for are the Kavadi carriers who subject themselves to bizarre masochistic acts as a measure of their faith. These include piercing their body with all manner of sharp objects such as huge hooks, spikes and skewers. You will see large spears inserted through both cheeks and devotees walking on shoes made of sharp nails. It is like a particularly gruesome form of acupuncture, yet there is very little sight of blood.
These fearless followers prepare weeks ahead. For the preceding 48 days, a strict regime of a vegetarian diet, celibacy and nonstop prayer is observed until devotees are able to go into a pure, trance-like state for the big day in order to withstand the intense pain. Unsurprisingly, some do not quite reach this state of higher consciousness and succumb to the pain – medical services are pretty busy on this day. Afterwards, wounds are miraculously treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent any permanent scarring.
This grisly spectacle is the main attraction for curious onlookers who are often as fascinated as they are appalled and there is much to see and experience besides. It starts off with the “Kavadi Attam” a hypnotic dance while worshipping Lord Murugan to the accompaniment of deafening drum beats. All males shave their heads in readiness for their masochistic show of devotion while offerings are made, usually a pot of milk which may be simply carried or fearlessly hung from meat hooks hanging from the flesh.
As the procession kicks off, numerous “Kavadis” are carried. These are makeshift portable floats carried on the shoulders of a small group of men, generally decorated with flower petals, peacock feathers, fruit and even plastic dolls. In south India there may be as many as 5,000 Kavadis in a chaotic, noisy procession, yet even this doesn’t compare with the epic Malaysian version held just outside the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Thaisapum in Malaysia and Singapore
In Kuala Lumpur, Thaisapum is a three-day epic festival which begins in the dead of night as a symbolic jewel-encrusted chariot carrying an effigy of Lord Murugan makes its way on a 15-km journey to a holy shrine high in the Batu Caves, followed by a small army of priests, dancers and musicians. At the caves, which feature a huge golden statue of Lord Murugan, there are frenzied trance dances and deafening music as devotees pay their respects and bathe in the scared waters of nearby Sungei Batu (Rock River).
It is a seething, sweltering mass of noise, frenzied religious devotion and hideous body piercing and a chaotic occasion that sees over one million visitors over the three days, including thousands of curious onlookers. Non-Hindus are not permitted into the caves at this time but it is nevertheless an epic religious happening quite like no other.
For a similar experience with less of the constant jostling and claustrophobia, head to Singapore’s Little India district which follows an identical script but in a much more civilized fashion. Here you can get up close and personal to all the action. Traffic comes to a standstill and it is an enlightening experience to see normally staid and orderly Singapore in such a frenzy, even just for one day.
Living The Love is a video documentary narrating the inspiring journey of a couple, giving great insight in the importance Thaipusam festival. Watch the video below.