Report from Tomorrow - Vol 40

1USD = S$1.71 (S$1 = 0.58USD)


In February 1999 Singapore celebrated the annual Hindu festival of Purification, Thaipusam. This festival is only celebrated in two places in the world today, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Singapore. It is not celebrated in India because of the concern people might be too zealous. (I wonder if this says something about KL and Singapore? :-)

The most visible part of the festival is a 3 km procession between two Hindu temples here. The primary participants are men and some younger boys whose goal is to carry a small container of coconut milk to the destination temple. What makes this event unique is the manner in which this is done.

Thaipusam is a kind of cleansing ceremony which is used to show devotion or give thanks. Perhaps a devotee made a promise to do one or more Thaipusams as a sign of devotion in the hope that God will grant some wish, like deliver a child from illness. If promised, the Thaipusam must be fulfilled even if the request was not granted.

The ceremony begins a week earlier as the devotees pray and fast. They get only one specially prepared vegetarian meal a day. On the day of Thaipusam the devotees wash in a bath of tumeric-spiced holy water.

Bananas, coconuts, and limes play a big role in all the events. As we wandered the temple watching the devotees being prepared, we saw hundreds of small offerings of these fruits and burning joss sticks. One of the things that made this so unique was the accessibility of the public. We could walk right up within a few feet and watch the devotee being prepared.

There is a large variation in the details, but generally the devotee will carry a kavadi (meaning "sacrifice at every step") which is an elaborate framework of wood or metal, often adorned with peacock feathers. These can weigh as much as 50 pounds.

What makes this festival so novel is the body piercing that goes with it all. Two kinds of piercing were particularly common. Generally they begin with with a small rod (usually one quarter inch in diameter but sometimes thicker) and pierce the two cheeks. Next a rod pierces the lower lip, then tongue and finally the upper lip. As the piercing is being done, the devotee is surrounded by friends who help by loud shouting, clapping and playing loud music. Looking into the eyes of some of these people, it was very clear they were in a trance. And it was also clear there was pain - but they were managing to overcome it.

In addition the devotees will most always be pierced by fish hooks (1.5 inches long or larger) hooked into the pectoral and back muscles. These may be attached to the kavadi, but are also sometimes attached to limes acting as weights. It is very common for one to have 30 or more hooks in addition to the cheek/lip/tongue piercing. During all of this, you will seldom seem any blood, which makes it all the more surreal. You just must see this to appreciate what's going on.

This year something like 9000 devotees participated in Thaipusam here. Once the kavadi and piercing is done, the devotee might dance about a bit, sometimes with great energy. I'm sure this checks everything out in addition to get him psyched for the long walk.

Eventually the devotee leaves the temple and joins the procession of others who walk in the street where the police have blocked off a lane for them. In addition to men carrying a kavadi, you'll see woman carrying milk containers on their heads, and even younger boys and sometimes a girl with a small kavadi. We saw one young boy (ten?) who also had some body piercing. Their support staff goes with each devotee, providing help, checking the kavadi, keeping people away and even carrying a small stool so the person can stop and rest. All in all, its a pretty slow procession.

A very few pulled small alters on wheels behind them. Yup, these folks had huge hooks in their backs to pull the alter. And perhaps most astounding, if that could seem possible, were the few we saw making the trip on sandals of nails (nails up into the feet). We saw no blood from all the people we watched during the festival, but were told later of a young girl who was screaming like mad when she was pierced.

This must be the most extraordinary event we've seen here. Being so close you see it all happen right there, time after time. It's extraordinary what people can and will do!