Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai, in January or February. The word is a combination of the name of the month and the name of a star known as Pusam which is at its highest during the festival. It commemorates when the Hindu goddess of love, Parvati, gave Murugan, the Hindu god of war, a spear so he could vanish an evil demon.
Last year, I really wanted to go take a look for myself. I researched where to go, charged my camera and went to bed early. Then I got up, got dressed – and just plain chickened out. I was uncharacteristically nervous and afraid. Usually, I’m one to dive right in, but somehow I felt like I was going to be a nosey expat snapping photos, intruding on something very personal and meaningful.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This year, I talked five of my friends into going with me. We took the MRT to Farrer Park and stepped out into the unusually cool morning. Steeled by my friends’ company, I started snapping photos, mesmerized by the images. Man after man walked by carrying a wooden kavadi which weigh about 80kg. Each skewered all over his body: spikes piercing tongues, cheeks, chests and backs keeping the structure upright. None seemed in pain. All seemed joyful and proud. They were surrounded by their families and friends, many carrying gold pots filled with milk, the symbol of purity. I was in awe and snapped away without reservation.
The festival starts shortly after midnight and goes for almost a full 24 hours. When we got there shortly after 7 o’clock, very few people were standing outside the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road. I got right up front to see man after man surrounded by family and friends start his way on the procession. After we were there for a while and the sights weren’t as overwhelming, the old fears that I was intruding on a religious rite began to wash over me again. I put my camera down, hesitating. Then a very soft-spoken, older, Hindu man told me that I should go inside. He told me that the families were quite proud and welcomed people seeing the celebration.
And so we worked our way into the newly-constructed $8 million P. Govindasamy Pillai hall, named after one of the temple's donors. All the makeshift buildings that had been there for the past few years were gone, replaced by a gorgeous hall able to hold the devotees, and tourists like me, for lack of a better term. There were the men being pierced, each with his own entourage, but there were also equally as many Westerners, all pointing their massive lenses this way and that, jockeying for the perfect angle. It was next to impossible to get a good photo without five other Westerners in the shot. Nobody seemed upset that we were there. Most kavadi-bearers ignored us, but all the families and friends were quite welcoming.
Patiently waiting my turn up front, I got my first look at somebody actually getting pierced. There was no blood, no screams of pain. Man after man stood there as though they were getting something done to them as simple as a temporary tattoo. One man stepped into a pair of shoes made of spikes, shoes he wore for the entire day. I saw only one man grimace with pain: he was getting his cheeks and tongue pierced. (I grimaced, too). A pierced tongue prevents him from speaking, reminds him to focus on the deity Lord Murugan and supposedly gives him greater power of endurance.
Some men were attached to elaborate carts with giant hooks they used to then pull those heavy carts through the streets. Wow.
Only one man bled a teeny, tiny bit. Supposedly, blood means you didn’t prepare your mind and body properly in the weeks leading up to the event. The elder who was doing the piercing lectured him then continued, skewering him yet again.
Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and takes only pure food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God. Once prepared, kavadi-bearers performed elaborate dances, offering to the god of war. An
So why do this? Why do approximately 280 men, plunk down $3,500 to buy a kavadi? Why don the wooden structure and walk four kilometers to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road? Why do 10,000 others go with them on the procession, singing and chanting and carrying milk?
The answer is simple: they want to be blessed by the gods. They are praying for the gods to tide their over or to avert disaster. They want to be smiled upon.
It was a fascinating morning and, if I didn’t have to work, I would have followed the procession the whole way. One woman told me that last year, she befriended a family who invited her to come with them and even had her go into Sri Thendayuthanpani Temple at the end to witness the milk offering. This temple, by the way, has celebrated Thaipusam in Singapore for more than 100 years.
As for the devotees, they seem unscathed. A woman I know told me that she used to work for NUH and that several of the kavadi-bearers were her clients. They’d show up the day after Thaipusam with nary a mark on their bodies.
But not me, nope. I’m marked – at least my soul is. I started thinking about my own beliefs and my devotion or lack thereof comparatively speaking. And I find that I feel incredibly lucky to live in Singapore where I can learn about so many different cultures each and every day. The gods are smiling on me, too.