Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion

Photograph of a girl carrying a Paal Kudam, a pot of milk, spilling over her forehead, while her mother supports her at Thaipusam pilgrimage. At the background of the photo, a young guy is resting on chair while carrying a Kavadi, a heavy portable altar with skewers attached to his torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
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Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim wearing a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Kavadi bearer at Thaipusam is resting before climbing the hill of Batu Caves

Photograph of street barbers shaving thhe heads of Thaipusam pilgrims, covering the streets in hair, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Hundreds of barbers have full hands of work at Thaipusam

Photograph of a street barber shaving bald one of the Thaipusam pilgrims, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Pilgrim getting shaved before Thaipusam procession

Photograph of a street barber shaving bald one of the Thaipusam pilgrims, while his wife obseres, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Pilgrim getting shaved before Thaipusam procession

Photograph of a street covered with hair and some garbage, left after the barbers shaved thousands of Thaipusam pilgrims, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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At Thaipusam streets get covered with carpets of cut hair

Photograph of a street barber shaving bald one of the Thaipusam youngest pilgrims - toddler's head is being held still by his father, while other relatives watch and laugh, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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The toddler is being shaved for Thaipusam while his father holds his head still

Photograph of a toddler giving a gesture of thanks to the street barber that shaved him bald at Thaipusam, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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A toddler is thanking his barber for the haircut he got at Thaipusam

Photograph of a woman searching for her shoes at the entrance of one of the temples at Batu Caves - with million and half of visitors at Thaipusam shoes get easily lost, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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With millions of Thaipsuam pilgrims entering the temples, finding shoes at the exit is not always easy

Photograph of a man holding the newspapers in the air to provide a shade for his grandson at Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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A man is improvising a shade for his grandson - during Thaipusam temperatures at Batu Caves rise high

Photograph of Thaipusam pilgrims resting at one of the Batu Caves temple, sitting on the floor, with the sign "No shoes", photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrims are resting at one of the temples at the base of the mountain

Photograph of a family dressed in vividly yellow dresses leaving the river where they had a ritual bath and left offerings to gods at Thaipusam, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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The river is a place to take a ritual bath before the final Thaipusam climb to Batu Caves

Photograph of the family father putting the Paal Kudam at his family member's head after the ritual at the river at Thaipusam, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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At river the offerings are being made to the gods, and then Thaipusam pilgrims can continue with Paal Kudams on their heads towards the Batu Caves

Photograph of offerings left at the river at Thaipusam - on the base of the banana leave there is a part of the coconut shell, bananas, flowers and incenses, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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At Thaipusam, some offerings to gods are left at the river

Photograph of a banana leaf floating in the river at Thaipusam carrying some human hair and some cubes set on fire, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Some offerings, including pieces of cut hair, float in the river at Thaipusam

Photograph of a pilgrim praying in front of the improvised altars in piles of trash at the river bank at Thaipusam festival
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrim praying at the banks of the river near the Batu Caves complex - improvised altars and piles of garbage are hard to distinguish

Photograph of a boy sitting next to a pile of garbage with some altar elements such as sculptures of deities, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Altars in trash - a typical Thaipusam image at Batu Caves

Photograph of Thaipusam pilgrims resting in the shade at the river bank at Thaipusam festival
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrims are resting in the shade before heading to the Batu Caves hill for the final stage of Thaipusam procession

Photograph of a man pulling the chains attached to the hooks piercing the skin of the back of the other man, an extreme ritual at Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Pierced back of Thaipusam pilgrim can be a shocking site for a Westerner

A man in a black T-shirt, with the red logo of Playboy magazine, holding a plate with sacred ashes ath Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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At Thaipusam, a man is holding a plate with sacred ashes (Vibhuti, Santhanam and Kunkumam). Does he know what kind of shirt is he wearing?

Photograph of a woman and her daughters carrying Paal Kudam milk pots on their heads, the woman's mouth are bleeding from the piercing ritual, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrim has a bleeding mouth after a piercing ritual

Photograph of a girl carrying a Paal Kudam, a pot of milk, spilling over her forehead, while her mother supports her at Thaipusam pilgrimage. At the background of the photo, a young guy is resting on chair while carrying a Kavadi, a heavy portable altar with skewers attached to his torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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The mother is helping her girl to restore balance after her milk pot spilled over her face at Thaipusam

Photograph of pilgrims carrying Paal Kudam, brass pots filled with milk, as offerings for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Paal Kudam is a brass jug of milk being carried at Thaipusam - usually on the head. Young ones are allowed to change positions for easier carrying

Photograph of pilgrims carrying Paal Kudam, brass pots filled with milk, as offerings for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrims carrying pots of milk to Batu Caves

Photograph of a boy at the stairs of Batu Caves, providing space for his father's climb - his father is carrying Paal Kudam, brass pot filled with milk, on his head, while moving on his knees at Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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The boy is clearing the way for his father climbing to Batu Caves on his knees - Thaipusam pilgrims like to challenge themselves

Photograph of pilgrims carrying Paal Kudam, brass pots filled with milk, as offerings for Thaipusam festival, the boy climbing the stairs to Batu Caves is spilling the milk all over his face, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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There are 272 steps to Batu Caves - spilling some milk during Thaipusam procession is not unusual

Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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A family of Thaipusam pilgrims is climbing to Batu Caves

Photograph of pilgrims climbing the stairs of Batu Caves and carrying Paal Kudam, brass pots filled with milk, as offerings for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Thaipusam pilgrims climbing the stairs with Paal Kudams on their heads

Photograph of a mother helping her young daughter carrying a heavy Kavadi altar while climbing the stairs of Batu Caves for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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The mother is helping her daughter carrying a Kavadi at Thaipusam

Photograph of pilgrims carrying Paal Kudam, brass pots filled with milk, as offerings for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Another family is bringing their Thaipusam offerings to Batu Caves temple complex

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim carrying a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso. Pilgrim is entering Batu Caves, while the crowds observe, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Kavadi bearer is entering the Batu Caves at Thaipusam

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim carrying a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso. Pilgrim is entering Batu Caves, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Skewers are pressing the skin of the Thaipusam pilgrim while he carries the Kavadi

Photograph of tourists photographing the Kavadi bearer removing his skewers and piercings, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Pierced men and women at Thaipusam are a striking sight for the cameras of tourists from the West

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim resting while carrying a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Kavadi bearer is resting at the foot of the Batu Caves hill, before a ritual dance and final climb at Thaipusam

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim dancing while carrying a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam, while the crowds observe - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Kavadi Attam is a ritual dance performed at Thaipusam by the bearers of portable altars

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim dancing while carrying a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam, while the crowds observe - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Pilgrims watch while Kavadi bearer is entering the trance at Thaipusam

Photograph of a Thaipusam pilgrim resting while wearing a Kavadi, a portable altar at Thaipusam - the structure is worn on his shoulders while the skewers are pressing the bearer's torso, photo by Ivan Kralj
Thaipusam’s extreme devotion : Piercing yourself for religion
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Kavadi bearer resting at Thaipusam

It is an old belief that the full moon makes people go crazy (therefore, the word ‘lunatics’ contains ‘luna,’ the Latin word for the moon)! Even if no transformational effect of the full moon on humans was ever scientifically proven, one still might argue that what some members of the Hindu community go through on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai (falling in January or February) is not a middle-of-the-road activity.

At Malaysian temples near Kuala Lumpur and George Town over a million devotees will gather to honor Lord Murugan, the God of War. Many will shave their heads bald, some will get into the procession carrying pots of milk on their head, some will crush coconuts to submit to the Divine, some will walk with a heavy burden on their shoulders and even pierce the skin of their torso, cheeks or tongue. The expression of faith at Thaipusam Festival can be quite dramatic!

Photo of Prakash J Govindarajoo, a pilgrim at Thaipusam 2017, with his mouth and tongue pierced, carrying a kavadi, photo by Alphabeatz Production
Prakash participates at Thaipusam since he was six years old
Inflicting pain for God

“Some Kuala Lumpur friends find my practice crazy. They think it is ridiculous and some say this is not the true way to express love to God because you don’t need to hurt yourself. Well, that is their opinion”, says Prakash J Govindarajoo, one of the participants in the procession. His cheeks and tongue pierced with spikes, while he carries a 32-kilos heavy Kavadi, decorated with peacock feathers and statues of Lord Murugan, are a striking sight. Prakash himself is barely 49 kilograms heavy!

He is not the only one carrying the Kavadi as a ceremonial sacrifice. These portable altars, usually made of wood and ornamented with objects such as peacock feathers, marigold blooms, palm shoots and coconuts, can sometimes weigh as much as 100 kilos, and be up to two meters tall! But if the first Kavadi-bearer Idumban could have brought two hills on his shoulders, what is 100 kilos in comparison?

At Thaipusam, one and a half million devotees climb 272 steps staircase to reach the Hindu shrines in the caves

Mythological roots of Thaipusam

When the Pusam star reaches its highest point in the month of Thai, Tamil Hindus around the world, in places such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and Mauritius, congregate to commemorate the occasion when the Goddess Parvati presented a spear (Vel) to her son Lord Murugan. He would later use this gift to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman. According to the myth, Lord Murugan split the beast in two, but he escaped and transformed into a mango tree. Murugan cleft the tree as well and the demon turned into a peacock and a rooster and attacked again. But Murugan tamed them with a single glance. He made the peacock his vehicle (Vahana) and the rooster his emblem. Another animal is often seen at Lord Murugan’s feet – a cobra, symbol of courage, wisdom, and immortality.

Photo of pilgrims gathering and climbing to Batu Caves, passing by the golden statue of Lord Murugan at the base of the hill, photo by Ivan Kralj
More than 1,5 million pilgrims flock at Batu Caves for Thaipusam

Measuring 42,7 meters in height, Lord Murugan’s statue at the entrance to Batu Caves is the second tallest statue of a Hindu deity in the world. Topped with 300 liters of gold paint, it attracts visitors, both pilgrims and tourists, throughout the year, naturally generating the greatest interest during Thaipusam. Devotees will climb 272 steps staircase to reach the complex of limestone caves, home to several Hinduistic shrines. The Cathedral Cave is the biggest one, with a 100 meters high ceiling.

Many will join the procession bringing offerings, such as a brass jug of milk carried on their head (Paal Kudam). They might be asking Lord Murugan, Shiva’s son, for help, or just fulfilling the vow. Climbing the steep staircase, even the small children can be seen, with milk trickling down their face.

Pierced 11-year old

Prakash, the 22-year-old education planner and a student of English Studies in Kuala Lumpur, also joined the pilgrimage as a 6-year-old kid, carrying nothing but a pot of milk. His tongue was pierced for the first time when he was eleven. Wasn’t he afraid?

Photograph of a father holding his toddler son's head while a barber is shaving him bald for Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
One can never be too young for Thaipusam – this toddler is probably getting his first haircut ever!

“I think I was afraid. I am even today, but when you know you have prayed properly, and when you are extremely in love during that point of time, you tend to lose consciousness. I don’t know how to explain this, but you don’t feel pain”, he explains. “My Dad carries Kavadi for 33 years now, and I was used to seeing that. I insisted on carrying it myself. There was no forcing.”

As if the mere weight of Kavadi is not enough, some include long skewers that pierce the skin of the bearer’s torso. What looks like an excruciating pain in the tourists’ eyes, disperses completely in the state of devotional trance. Supposedly, Kavadi bearers do not feel pain, their wounds do not bleed and leave no permanent scars. Then again, only those who go through the rigorous spiritual preparation can carry the Kavadi. This includes fasting on a vegetarian diet, refraining from alcohol, sexual abstinence, sleeping on the floor, bathing in cold water and regular prayer in the period preceding the Thaipusam, up to 48 days.

Photograph of a pilgrim sitting and resting while wearing a Kavadi, a portable altar with skewers piercing the skin of his torso at Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
Between a trance and rest, the Kavadi bearer is finding the strength for a final climb to Batu Caves hill
The power of the spear

I have joined this event myself at Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur, where thousands of devotees gathered, to accompany the silver chariot of Lord Murugan in a march that needs 16 hours to reach Batu Caves. Huge crowds, inability to exit the swarm, hard time finding one’s shoes in front of the temple… Volunteers were distributing the water to the thirsty ones. Pilgrims joining the stream, many with Paal Kudams on their head, chant “Vel, Vel” mantra, the same one they will use to help the one bearing the Kavadi. Murugan’s spear has an extraordinary power in defeating the obstacles and personal doubts. For the gratitude, he will accept the bearer’s burdens and suffering.

On the day of the festival at Batu Caves, masses grow much bigger. The context is the religious one, but substantially it is a grand fair. The music blare, scents of all kind of food, tattoos to make, altars to buy, but also the Hello Kitty balloons. Carpets of human hair cover the streets, barbers have a lot to do. Many pilgrims will engage in the ritual of getting their head shaved, as an act of sacrifice, humility, and purification. Men and women, babies and old folks… Their shorn heads symbolize their devotion to Thaipusam. At the bank of the river nearby, many will pray, leave the offerings to the God and take the ritual bath before heading to the temple. They are seeking the blessing for the procession. Some will get pierced with Vel instruments.

Photo of a man with his back pierced with hooks which are attached to the chains pulled by another man, resembling a horse pulling the carriage - the man is giving blessings to other pilgrims at Thaipusam 2017, photo by Ivan Kralj
The holy man is pulling the chains attached to the hooks piercing the skin of his back, and distributing blessings to the pilgrims
Hooks in the sacred man’s back

At one of the improvised “streets” between the stalls, a man is pulling chains attached to the hooks piercing his back, in the scene that reminds of a horse pulling the carriage. At some moments he will stop. The pilgrims will appreciate his level of holiness and accept his blessing. He will mark their foreheads with three different substances: the sacred ash called Vibhuti (comes from the sacred fire burnt in temples or at religious ceremonies, and is said to transmit energy and remind wearers of the transience of life), sandalwood powder known as Santhanam (believed to activate the third eye), and a smear of brilliant vermillion paste known as Kunkumam (a symbol of the Goddess Parvati).

I don’t know how to explain this, but you don’t feel painPrakash J Govindarajoo

At the foot of the mountain, five Kavadi bearers enter the Kavadi Attam (Kavadi dance). Under the umbrella of Kavadi, where the metal supporting ribs/spikes are penetrating their bodies, they twirl like dervishes. Lord Murugan will reward their physical burden and make their prayers come true.

Falling into and out of the trance

Prakash, the little fellow with the big load, is joining the same procession, from the river to the temple. Soon he will be climbing 272 stairs, in a journey that can take about one hour. He has a hard time speaking about the trance he falls into: “It is a rather difficult question. I am not sure how to answer. One should experience it.”

Photograph of a man who carried the kavadi up the hill having its skewers removed in Batu Caves at Thaipusam festival, photo by Ivan Kralj
After the Thaipusam procession, skewers carrying the Kavadi are being removed at Batu Caves

The experience leaves the onlookers dazzled. After entering the Cathedral Cave, the Kavadis will be taken off the bearer’s shoulders. Some can faint when exiting the trance. In front of the never absent cameras of the sensation-hungry Westerners.

Thaipusam 2017 will leave a lot of garbage behind. Many offerings are piling up into the hills of trash and fruit. The macaque monkeys, who are usually operating in significant numbers at the Batu Caves staircase, during Thaipusam hide away. In the following days however they will engage in a scavenging feast.

Prakash will get back to work. Some local colleagues will think he is crazy, and some US friends will find his practice amazing. He will be back to a “normal” life. Sleeping in the bed and not praying too much. On his Instagram profile, he will write: “It is always sad to say goodbye, but we can’t wait for 31st January 2018. Until then, goodbye to the holy side of me.”

 

 

For the video impressions from Thaipusam 2017, check this edit by Impressions Goh!
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* pipe away ['paipǝ'wei] (vt, mar) = to give the whistling signal
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