This is a guest post from Margherita Ragg of The Crowded Planet about a fascinating festival in Malaysia called Thaipusam. I can’t wait to see all of the ritualized face piercings for myself one day.
This is the story of one of the most intense experiences I’ve had so far. Thaipusam is a festival that takes place in Malaysia, but has its origins in India. It is a day of devotion, endurance and faith.
When I was a child, I used to love looking at my grandfather’s photographs of Malaysia in the 1950s. I remember being fascinated by a picture of a young man with a spear piercing his cheeks. I wasn’t frightened or disgusted by it, as most other children would be. I just wanted to know how they did it.
What is Thaipusam?
Years later, I travelled to Penang, to finally see that mysterious festival for myself. Even though it is Indian in origin, the festival has been banned for years, and it survives only in Malaysia, where it takes place every year in various cities around the country. The name Thaipusam derives from the Tamil month Thai (between January and February) and Poosam, referring to a star that reaches its highest position during the festival.
The festival is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the god of war in the Hindu-Tamil pantheon of deities. Devotees praise the god carrying burdens, known as kavadi, to Lord Murugan’s temple. Kavadi can take various forms, from pots of milk to effigies of the god; but the ones most commonly associated to Thaipusam are vel or spiked kavadi. People of all ages perform flesh mortification, inserting hooks through their back and spears through their cheeks.
My Thaipusam experience
Early in the morning, at the beginning of the parade, it is possible to see vel kavadi being applied to the bodies of devotees. I saw people lying on their back on the hot, steaming tarmac, under the blazing sun. Priests chanted prayers and families burnt incense, before the hooks went through.
I expected screams and tears, but there were none. The devotees were in a trance, able to transcend physical pain thanks to a grueling regime of prayer and meditation undertaken during the three weeks previous to the festival.
Traditionally, kavadi-bearing is done to thank Lord Murugan for saving someone’s life. With an average of 300 kavadi-bearers every year in Penang, and a much higher number in Kuala Lumpur, I thought there were an awful lot of lives being saved. Asking around, I learnt that people were carrying kavadi for all sorts of reasons; to thank the god for the birth of a child, for good business, for passing university exams. What really struck me was that not all kavadi-bearers were Indian. As a testament to Penang’s diversity, we saw Chinese and Western people carrying kavadi.
Following the Thaipusam parade was a testing experience. The route between the beginning of the parade and the temple where it ends is six kilometers in Penang, and most bearers take the whole day to cover the distance, arriving at the temple after sunset. Colorful stalls, serving up vegetarian food for all passers-by, line the streets. The whole town is in the street; Indian ladies wrapped in saris, jasmine running through their silky hair, teenagers with techno music blaring from their phones, devotees with shaved hair covered in saffron paste, the color of holiness.
Yet, the bearers seemed oblivious to it all. They marched on. As the day went on, the crowds got thicker and thicker, and I decided to follow a boy named Krishna all the way up the temple. More than once he seemed about to collapse, under the weight of the three-foot spear running across his face. I can’t even begin to imagine how tough that must have been for him. Krishna climbed the temple steps, each of them higher than a mountain. When he approached the altar, the spear was removed and a kerchief wrapped around his mouth with a smear of vibuthi (medicinal ash).
Thaipusam is an overload for all senses. Colours. Lord Murugan’s effigies, the metal of vel kavadi. Sounds. Prayers and music blaring all around. Smells. Incense, spices, jasmine and sour milk. The flavours of food generously offered by devotees. Bodies heaving, sticky and rubbery with sweat. It is the most unforgettable festival I have ever seen.