Today we travel back to Penang, to share with you our experience of Thaipusam, Malaysia’s biggest Hindu festival.
Warning: the following post contains images that some people might find disturbing.
My grandfather lived in Malaysia in the Fifties. Among the mementos of his time in the Far East I remember an old video showing a procession of men with spears through their tongues and cheeks, filmed in Singapore during Thaipusam. I remained captivated for years, and finally decided to go and see for myself. The biggest Thaipusam celebration takes place in Batu Caves near KL; but I decided to go to Penang, where the festival is smaller but no less spectacular. The name Thaipusam derives from the Tamil month of Thai (January-February) and Poosam, referring to a star which reaches its highest position during the festival.
What is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the god of war in the Hindu-Tamil pantheon of deities. During the festival, devotees praise the god by carrying physical burdens called kavadi during a procession to the god’s temple. Although I was warned the festival is rather overwhelming, nothing could prepare me to the sight of kavadi getting ready for the procession.
Thaipusam is a show of devotion and endurance unlike any other. I learned kavadi can take various forms, from simple steel pots filled with offerings to effigies of Lord Murugan on scaffolds. Papier-mache images of the god are decorated with flowers or peacock feathers and placed on a wood or steel frame, reaching a weight of around 40kg.
What makes Thaipusam popular amongst locals and tourists alike, though, is the sight of vel or spiked kavadis, devotees that perform flesh mortification inserting spikes through their cheeks or applying hooks in their backs. Some devotees carry all types of kavadi at once, others have their chest and back covered by small pots containing milk hooked on their skin, looking like a makeshift armour.
Thaipusam in Penang
In Penang the Thaipusam procession starts at Kovil Veedu (House Temple) in the centre of Georgetown, and terminates at Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on Waterfall Road, 6km away.
Early in the morning, vel kavadi are applied to the bodies of kavadi bearers. Small groups of family and friends gathered around the devotee, whilst I curiously approached to catch a glimpse. At the centre of one of these circles, I was welcomed by the family of Kumar, a 27-year-old man. Plates with offerings of fruit were laid out, Kumar barely visible through a haze of incense smoke.
A bearded priest with shaved head and chest-long beard chanted verses to Lord Murugan, joined by Kumar’s family. As the pace of the chant and the beat increased, the priest then pushed a spear through Kumar’s cheek. Afterwards, Kumar got up, arranged a milk pot on his head, and started marching.
Devotees are in a trance when their bodies are pierced; they didn’t appear to be in pain. Speaking to Jeya, who was supporting her 21 year-old nephew Niru, I learnt why. Kavadi-carriers undertake a severe regime to prepare themselves for the festival, to cleanse themselves in order to gain communion with the god. For 21 days Niru had to abstain from alcohol, smoking, chewing betel nuts and ‘girl thinking’. Kavadi-bearers are required to sleep on the floor, bathe with cold water and fill their time with prayer, meditation and charitable activities. They must also follow a sattvik diet, which allows the consumption of basic, unprocessed vegetarian food. Onion, garlic, red chillies and strong spices are forbidden, whilst dairy products are especially recommended, alongside with fruit.
From Jeya, I discovered Niru was indeed in a trance when his cheeks where pierced by a horrendous-looking spear. After practising meditation, on the day the devotee is able to transcend aided by his practice and by the chants and prayers performed around him. Indeed, there was almost no blood coming from their wounds, and Jeya said there will be no scars afterwards.
To my untrained, secular Western mind the degree of mortification appeared justifiable only if done to show thanks for a life saved or something along these lines. With an estimated number of around 300 kavadi each year, it seemed to me like an awful lot of lives saved.
I spoke with the family of a boy in his late teens, who was giving thanks for being admitted to study IT at university. Another young man, whose friends were taking turns in pulling the hooks attached to his back, was participating in the festival to praise Lord Murugan for ‘good business’.
A young lady had her forehead pierced by a small skewer to celebrate the birth of her baby son, after unsuccessfully trying to conceive for a number of years. Although the majority of kavadi were Tamil, thanks to Penang’s melting pot I also saw some Chinese families supporting their very own kavadi-bearer, and even a group of three Westerners. It was nearly impossible to grab a glimpse of the Westerners, who were clearly the attraction of the day. Asking around I found out they were three friends, one of whom had recently survived a difficult kidney transplant.
In the afternoon, the magic of Thaipusam was far from over. As the sun came down, we got respite from the heat, and the kaleidoscope of colours was bathed by a magical light. One colour was prevalent among the glitzy saris and the bright images of Lord Murugan; saffron, the colour of holiness. Male kavadi-carriers wore saffron loincloths, women wore simple saffron blouses, while devotees of all ages, men and women, sported a shaved head covered in a saffron-coloured paste.
Waterfall Road, the street leading to the temple where the procession was going to end, was lined with garishly coloured foodstalls on both sides, from where devout families served free food. The smell of curries and tea filled the air, upbeat music was playing to accompany kavadi-attam, the ritualistic dance performed by kavadi-bearers. Group of youths played contemporary music on mobile phones to cheer their friends on.
The devotees had been carrying kavadi since morning, under the blazing sun; they appeared exhausted, but none gave up. There were men carrying Lord Murugan’s image on their back spinning frantically at techno beats, others kept walking, unperturbed with a metre-long spear balanced through their cheeks. I couldn’t believe the sight of four young men pulling a tractor by a double row of hooks and ropes through their backs, and nothing else.
As I got closer to the temple, the crowd increased, until it was very hard to proceed unless I joined one of the small clusters of friends and relatives following a kavadi-bearer. I chose a teenage boy named Krishna, dressed in red and balancing one of the biggest spears of the day through his cheeks. The strain on his face was visible; from his friends I discovered he had been carrying the kavadi for about 8 hours.
When we approached the temple hill, I believed I detected a glimpse of relief in his eyes. The temple was packed. I battled my way through, curious to see what happened when Krishna reached the main altar. I expected something along the lines of the morning ceremony, with incense, chanting and prayers. I was wrong; spears and hooks were quickly removed, a few handfuls of ash smeared on the wounds, the milk from the pots unceremoniously dumped in a large tank. I wanted to talk to Krishna, but the ordeal of the day had taken its toll on the young man. After the spear was removed and a red kerchief wrapped around his mouth, he fell asleep on the temple steps.