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The Grey Side of Tamilian Hinduism in Singapore – Thaipusam

A Kavadi bearer

A Kavadi bearer

Warning: This post contains some disturbing images. Viewer discretion is required.

Thaipusam is observed on the full moon day of the Tamil month Thai to make offerings to Lord Murugan.
The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel “spear” so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. Its is a celebration of victory of good over evil.

On this day Tamil devotees carry a PaalKudam (Milk Pot), Vel (spiked) kavadi  or Vel (spiked) chariots as an offering to Lord Murugan.
Multiple skewers/spikes are build up into elaborate structures, ornamented with peacock feathers around Lord Murugan statue, and LED lights
They look like spherical cage-canopies over the devotees, with the spikes piercing into their bodies around the waist. These structures are known as spike kavadis.
Each of spike kavadis can cost from 1000$ to 3500$ on an average depending on the decoration. Temple charges a sum of 150$ for allowing the participation in procession.
Procession start from Perumal temple, Little India and ends at Chettiars‘ Temple or Tank road temple (Sri Thendayuthapani Temple) after a walk of 3+ kms.

Devotees start assembling after midnight to prepare the kavadis, and getting piercing done through their body. A kavadi bearer is supposed to get 108 piercing done in body. One piercing right across the cheeks and one through tongue. This prohibits the devotee from speaking while making sacrifice and enduring pain. Sometimes elaborate metal plates cover a devotee’s entire mouth.

All these small pots are hooked into skin

All these small pots are hooked into skin

I went to see the procession at Perumal temple, Little India at round 7AM. By 7AM many kavadis were already leaving the temple. However I was not late and many devotees had just started. Atmosphere inside temple was very electrifying. Mantra chanting with drum beats tend to energize everyone present there. Apparently they chant “Vel Vel Murugan…”. Maybe its this tempo that helps devotees to forget the pain of piercing and yet dance to the drum beats.

Thaipusam-750_2850

How composed, isn’t it?

These performer make the environment electric.

These performer make the environment electric.

Oouch it hurts?

Oouch it hurts?

This year 280 people carried spiked kavadis and 10,000 carried paalkudams.
Men can participate in process with hooks embedded in their flesh, from which they can hang lemons – the fruit symbolizes purification or small milk pots.

A patron blowing conch

A patron blowing conch

Spiked chariots are even more grueling. Devotee is hooked at back, to which a chariot with statues of multiple Indian Gods is attached. The devotee is supposed to drag along the chariots all the way. And trust me hooks for chariots are not thin.

Spikes of Chariot

Spikes of Chariot

Each Kavadi is held by spikes in body

Each Kavadi is held by spikes in body

Not even a major i guess!

Not even a major i guess!

Women are not excluded from proceedings. They do not usually pierce themselves, though this morning I did see one woman who’d pierced her face.

What a beautiful smile! Pain? whats that?

What a beautiful smile! Pain? whats that?

People can join in, by having their heads shaved, and offering their hair to Lord Murugan. The scalp is rubbed with turmeric, to prevent infection.

A portion of the road is reserved for Kavadis

A portion of the road is reserved for Kavadis

After office I had a quick call to a friend and he suggested me to go to Tank roads temple (where procession ends) as well. Tank road temple is only 2 stops by metro from my office so I decided to see how the procession ends. So now you know why no update was posted yesterday.

Here kavadi bearers seems to get the last burst of energy. I saw a few kavadis wear a spiked/nailed foot wear before entering the temple. Kavadi Attam is the dance performed by these Kavadi bearers to please Lord Murugan. They dance and twirl to wild drum beats and mantras in a state of trance in front of Lord Murugan altar. They then offer the milk pots (tied to kavadis) to priest which will pour it in a huge milk tank which flows over Lord Murugan statue. I could see large quantity of milk flowing over statue as if a small waterfall. Though I was not able to get close.

Kavadi Attam - Dance performed by devotee before Lord Murugan

Kavadi Attam – Dance performed by devotee before Lord Murugan

Below of riveting video of “Kavadi Attam” dance

Once milk is offered, kavadi bearers can move to dismantling area and can get spikes removed. By this time most of the kavadis are half dead. Many were seen being assisted by family members and friends. What I don’t know still is why the spikes don’t bleed? It is also said that piercing leave no scars.

But this event is not for faint heart’d. A few devotees fainted. Even I felt anguished on seeing severe physical pain. At one point I wanted to hold and support a person who looked to be on verge of collapsing! But I refrained from getting emotional and moved on.

Not for everyone , though!

Not for everyone , though!

Is God really pleased if we hurt our body? Is God Sadist? Perhaps, this is a discussion for another time!

6 thoughts on “The Grey Side of Tamilian Hinduism in Singapore – Thaipusam

  1. Somnath Goswami

    Love this series. Penance has been a part of religion since long and still thrives in many corners of the globe. Part of life and quite fascinating through your lens.

    1. Ankur Post author

      Somnath Dada, Religion has been a way of life for majority of people(not only Muslim as is a general belief). I was aware of only Shia Muslims hurting themselves in Ashura festival, but Thaipusam has been a eye opener. I plan to attend this event in Malaysia next year, where it is celebrated at even grand scale. Would love if you can join 🙂

  2. Kat

    Hi Ankur, if you want to experience Thaipusam in Malaysia, I would suggest to check out the festivities in Penang, instead of Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur. This is because the KL one has become too touristy – a spectacle – so much so that devotees are embarrassed that Thaipusam in BC is no longer a religious affair. The Penang one, though many tourists throng to the island to see the procession, it’s still very spiritual which is what it should be.

    1. Ankur Post author

      Hi Kat, Thanks for the sharing the insight. I will head to Penang instead now. As a photography lover, i too want to capture natural festival instead of tourist driven celebrations.

      1. Kat

        The kavadi in Batu Caves have now become more outrageous, that’s why the devotees feel that the festivities there have strayed away from what Thaipusam should actually be. Hope you get to Penang 23rd Jan 2016 🙂

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