Thaipusam Festival : Body Piercing Rituals Under the Blood Moon

Prakash J Govindarajoo family piercing him as a preparation for Thaipusam Festival 2019, his tongue and cheeks are pierced with spike, photo by Ivan Kralj
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Piercing the cheeks of a devotee with a rod at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, photo by Ivan Kralj
Piercing the tongue of a devotee with a skewer at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Piercing the cheek of a devotee with a skewer at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Prakash J Govindarajoo posing with pierced tongue and cheeks at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced cheeks at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced tongue and cheeks, carrying a kavadi at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced back skin at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with bells pierced through the skin of his back at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Two female devotees with pierced tongues carrying paal kudam at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee sticking out his tongue while smoking a cigar at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
An oldr bearded devotee with pierced cheeks and tongue, carrying a paal kudam at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Young boy devotee with pierced tongue, carrying a paal kudam with his family at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Three female devotees with pierced tongues, carrying paal kudam at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Young man having his back skin pierced with flowers at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee having his back skin pierced with jewelry chains at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with dozens of green apples pierced on his back skin at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotees at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotees at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced back skin being pulled by ropes at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced back skin being pulled by ropes at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with a cigar at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee sitting on the floor at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee screaming while putting paal kudam milk pot on his head, at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee with pierced cheeks and back skin pulling ropes on the street at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Woman and young boy getting their head shaved in the street at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
a couple of devotees with a decorated cow at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee sticking his tongue out in the procession at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee Prakash J Govindarajoo carrying a peacock-feathers-decorated kavadi at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Shocked onlookers watching the pierced devotee passing by at Thaipusam Festival 2019 at Batu Caves, Malaysia, photo by Ivan Kralj
Gold statue of Lord Murugan next to the 272 stairs leading to Batu Caves, Malaysia. Pilgrims climbing them during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotee carrying paal kudam climbing the 272 stairs to Batu Caves, Malaysia, during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Little girl devotee carrying paal kudam climbing the 272 stairs to Batu Caves, Malaysia, during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Monkey drinking milk from the damaged pack on the stairs to Batu Caves, Malaysia, during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Crowds gathering at Hinduistic temples in Batu Caves, Malaysia, during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
A rooster and a devotee with pierced tongue at Batu Caves, Malaysia, during the Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Prakash J Govindarajoo family piercing him as a preparation for Thaipusam Festival 2019, his tongue and cheeks are pierced with spike, photo by Ivan Kralj

The Americans went crazy for the Super Wolf Blood Moon. The particular position of Earth between the Sun and the Moon made our satellite appear bloody red these days. The total lunar eclipse was not visible in Asia, but that didn’t stop millions to celebrate one of the most extreme Hindu festivals, always falling on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai. Well, technically, Thaipusam Festival (or Thai Poosam) doesn’t have to be that radical! Its self-mutilating body practices are actually banned in India, as they believe that the body is the temple of the soul and therefore shouldn’t be harmed. However, visitors to Batu Caves and Penang in Malaysia continually celebrate this annual Hindu festival by engaging in dramatic body piercing rituals that usually produce no blood. This year, I followed a family of Hindu pilgrims to Batu Caves, to witness Muruga trance from the very proximity.

16 hours of barefoot march

This was not my first visit to this extraordinary Batu Caves festival! Thaipusam images from 2017 were still fresh in my mind, so I came somewhat prepared to Malaysia.

Lord Murugan's silver chariot, decorated with LED lights, leaving Sri Mahamariamman temple in Kuala Lumpur for Batu Caves where Thaipusam Festival 2019 will take place, photo by Ivan Kralj
LED-shining Lord Murugan’s silver chariot leaving for Batu Caves

Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur was a starting point where the pilgrims gathered to follow the Lord Murugan’s silver chariot to Batu Caves.

To enter the temple where they prepare the chariot decoration, one needed to take the shoes off. Remembering how quickly these streets filled with people, and how long it took me to find my shoes back in 2017, this time I was smarter. I packed my sneakers in the bag and brought them with me, inside the temple.

Concentrated in prayer and Paal Kudam preparation (filling the pilgrimage jugs with milk), everyone was slowly entering into the Thaipusam festival spirit. Bright-colored dresses, flowers in the hair, sacred powder on the forehead, and a selfie for the road!

Some were eating free food and drinking water distributed by the volunteers. One needed to save energy! It would take 16 hours for the slow chariot procession to reach Batu Caves. Many walked this route barefoot, in a true spirit of prayer and penance.

Hinduistic celebration in the country of Muslims

Two-thirds of the Malaysian population are Muslim. According to the last census, there were 1,8 million Hindus in the country (6,3 %). Estimations that 1,6 million people would visit Thaipusam 2019 at Batu Caves is very indicative. Thaipusam is not just another Malaysian public holiday. If we speak about the Hinduism in Malaysia, this is a must-visit event!

Friends Kumar and Govindarajoo, with pierced tongue and cheek, and paal kudam - milk pots on their head, walking in a procession to Batu Caves at Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Devotees pierce their body with skewers resembling the spear (vel) Lord Murugan used to defeat the evil demon

Body piercing rituals at the river bank

On the banks of the Sungai Batu river at the base of the Batu Caves hill, people started to gather early on Thaipusam morning. Ritual cleaning of the body, prayer at the improvised altars, and loud groups of drummers moving around. They accompanied the pilgrims in reaching over the edge.

Men, women, even children got their tongues and cheeks skewered. All the while, their family members were encouraging them by yelling in unison: “Vel, vel! Vel, vel!”

Vel was a spear that Lord Murugan, the god of war, used to defeat the evil demon. In Muruga trance, these believers became warriors too, the invincible ones.

Many physically transformed. Their eyes rolled back, their tongue protruded, their body twisted. The milky foam was leaking out of their mouth. Sprinkled by lime juice and flower petals, they fell into a state that seemed dramatic. Some were yelling like possessed, some were pounding their head with hand, some were jumping and dancing around, just occasionally being pulled back by their more present companions.

With spread legs, high chin and casual cigar or two in the corner of their mouth, some men flaunted like a peacock. That bird was Lord Murugan’s vehicle, and pilgrims would typically use its feathers to decorate the Kavadi. These portable altars are another way of showing devotion, as it is not an easy task to bring them up the 272 stairs to Batu Caves.

For more background on Thaipusam Festival, read the article Thaipusam’s Extreme Devotion: Piercing Yourself for Religion.

Needle piercing through butter

There was a certain easiness when skewers pierced the cheeks of Govindarajoo family members. The long and sometimes thick spikes were penetrating their skin like butter. Supported by their family’s cheering voices, Prakash (24), his sister Vickneswary (27), their father Govindarajoo (53) and some friends of the family, surrendered to the penetrating pins. A teardrop leaving the corner of the eye showed the extremity of endurance their bodies went through, but their memory would not describe the pain. In the ecstasy of Muruga trance, there was no room for pain.

A teardrop showed the extremity of endurance of their bodies, but their memory would not describe the pain

Prakash additionally got the chains of his 40-kilos heavy Kavadi pierced and hooked for the skin of his back and chest. Some other pilgrims would pin flowers, bells, apples, oranges or limes on their dorsal surface. Some would attach ropes on the hooks and walk down the road while the holder of these reins would pull them back as if controlling the wild horse.

Thaipusam experience as a medical miracle

Devotee at Thaipusam Festival 2019 standing barefoot on sabers held in the air by fellow pilgrims, photo by Ivan Kralj
He bleeds, but he will walk barefoot on the roads where 1,6 million pairs of feet walked as well

In one of the more extreme actions, a group of men held sabers in the air. A devotee stepped on them with his bare feet. I happened to be just in the middle of the action. While I tried to focus my camera on his soles from beneath, the blood was dripping everywhere. He would now walk all the way up to the cave temples, with his wounds exposed. Indeed, why these people don’t get infected?

Before he made the holes in nephew’s cheeks, the 60-year-old piercer Selvam disinfected the rod with lime juice and wiped the excess with newspaper. Prakash got to chew some lime as an anesthetic as well. After they pulled out the rod at Batu Caves, they stopped the drop of blood by rubbing some ash on it and covered it with a scarf.

I don’t know how the medicine would explain this risky exposure to infections, but it seemed that Thaipusam spirit overtook them. It was winning it all!

For video impressions from Thaipusam 2019, check this edit by Impressions Goh!
Thaipusam Festival accidents

For an event with so many sharp and dangerous objects in the streets, one would think that attending Thaipusam Festival has its risks. The friendly policemen stationed close to Batu Caves main entrance offered me a tangerine and told me they do not have much work concerning public safety. “Except for some alcohol intoxication, there are usually no major incidents”, they said. That very same night, an incident did happen. But, let’s see the chronology of Thaipusam accidents at Batu Caves:

In 2009, a limestone rock broke off from the roof of the Batu Caves and fell on the leg of a 16-year-old.

In 2016 procession to Batu Caves, a BMW ran over pilgrims on KL-Seremban Highway. The driver killed three and injured three more.

In 2019, 34 people were injured, and three cars were damaged in a firecracker accident. Instead of exploding in the air, they exploded on the road.

 

Thaipusam – a festival of family

Participating in this pilgrimage, especially if one is bearing a heavy Kavadi on his back, is a test of endurance. These bodies have gone through so much in the previous month/s, that the completion of the walk is rather fascinating.

Devotee lolling his tongue out while dancing with peacock-feathers decorated Kavadi at Thaipusam Festival 2019, photo by Ivan Kralj
Dancing with heavy Kavadi requires stamina. That is even more difficult after 48 days of rigorous fasting!

“We were fasting for 48 days. Eating only once a day, only vegetarian food”, Prakash’s father explained the Thaipusam fasting procedure. He was participating in these rituals for 35 years now and claimed that rigorous preparations were a big part of the festival. “We do not celebrate Diwali, but Thaipusam we cannot skip!”

For their family, it is a moment of reunion. Thaipusam Festival connects family members, young and old, close and distant, in the practice of the collective achievement.

Kavadi bearers cannot do it alone. They need the support! They need the little cousin’s voice yelling the reassuring “Vel, vel!” into their ear, they need the mother’s hand to bring water to their lips, they need a helping push when climbing the steep stairs becomes unbearable, they need someone to carry a chair so they can rest at the middle of the path, they need someone to massage the tension out of their legs and back. This is not just Lord Murugan’s holiday! Thaipusam is a celebration of family, of togetherness.

Pilgrims and tourists flocking to Batu Caves, the place of Thaipusam Festival 2019, celebrating Lord Murugan whose enormous golden statue stands just next to the 272 stairs leading to the cave temples, photo by Ivan Kralj
Every year, Thaipusam at Batu Caves breaks the records of attendees

Thaipusam Festival 2019 as a tourism boost

Walking to Batu Caves meant getting lost in the crowds of people taking photographs, barbers shaving pilgrims’ heads, cooks luring the fasters’ noses with appetizing smells, merchants selling anything from jewelry to fair ride tickets.

In comparison with the 2017 festival edition, I felt the presence of the westerners multiplied. Armed with their phones and cameras, they were queuing for taking pictures almost like paparazzi at some Hollywood red carpet.

Thaipusam tourism was clearly resting on the attraction created by extreme bodies. Some onlookers were genuinely shocked, some seemed somewhat fascinated. Thaipusam Festival might be hard to watch. But sometimes, it is even harder to turn your head away. A cure for someone, a curiosity for the others.

Happy Thaipusam!

What do you think about this kind of event? Have you attended anything similar? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
Check out how Thaipusam Festival 2019 looked like in images!

 

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Thaipusam is an annual Hinduistic festival that attracts 1,6 million visitors to Batu Caves, Malaysia, every year. It is known for devotees falling into trance and then practicing extreme body piercing rituals in celebration of Lord Murugan, the god of war. Check out how Thaipusam Festival 2019 looked like!

Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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