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!
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.”
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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