January 18, 2014

Thaipusam Will Get Under Your Skin. ~ Andrea Leber

Hindus celebrate one of the world’s greatest festivals by piercing their bodies—watch out, you’ll get hooked!

This riotous explosion of religion—celebrations, colors, mind-numbing drumming and suffocating incense clouds—happens with reliable regularity. Every year on the full moon day in the 10th Tamil month of Thai (for the non-initiated: January or February), Hindus in Malaysia transform the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur into a site of sacrifice. Pilgrims pierce tongues, backs and cheeks with hooks and long spears, and then add oranges and lemons as weights.

A stream of millions of devotees from all over Malaysia and overseas will pour into a small strip of land ten kilometers outside KL. The government would love to know how many exactly but is unable to find out. Estimates are all we’ve got. Sure is that thousands of Hindus are taking part, commemorating the day where Shiva’s son Murugan defeated three demons with a lance, while millions of others are watching—among them a few adventurous tourists, gaping.

If you’re one of them, the strong pull of determined worshipers will eventually drag you along, up towards the 270 steps that lead to God Murugan’s golden, illuminated statue. He guards the entrance to the caves, the holy chamber of worship. The statue forms an outlandish, serene and emotionally removed backdrop to the eclectic and colourful crowd that will be celebrating for three days nonstop, day and night.

If you’re lucky, you can get a close up of metal going through flesh like a knife through warm butter. Once you’re in the front row, you’ll have ample time watching the procedure.

The piercing business is a lengthy one as hooks can either number 54 or 108, the holy Hindu figure, and each hook will first be slowly heated in an open flame for disinfection.

But be sure that tourists like you and me will be the only ones to cringe when metal penetrates skin. Devotees will remain staggeringly aloof. That’s because they’re not in their bodies any longer; through the rituals performed the spirits gain possession of the devotee’s flesh while he himself is watching from the outside.

Oddly, there won’t be a single drop of blood. It’s all down to a diligent, two weeks long preparation including a strict vegetarian diet and precisely prescribed prayers. In fact, it’s embarrassing if it’s bleeding as onlookers will know that you’ve cheated with the preparation regime.

With a stomach that starts revolting, still digesting images you’ve most likely never seen before (hey, this is not a movie!) you’ll become part of an open sea of a million bodies clad in colourful sarees and lunghis, rolling in waves towards the caves. You’re not deciding anymore, you’re drowning, just going with the flow, succumbing to this elating, confusing and deeply impressive moment.

You can’t breathe anymore, there’s so much incense smoke; you can’t hear your own thoughts anymore, there’s so much shouting, chanting, music. From left and right, people will throw red glowing charcoal in front of the devotees’ feet, a way of increasing the pain. The more pain, the bigger the wish to be made at the cave temple. The sound of the little bells tied to ankles and hooks will be merging into a storm.

There will be drum players, sweets sellers, refreshment kiosks, and charitable organisations handing out free meals.

You and everyone else will then climb up the stairs towards the night’s climax, turning around from time to time, holding onto the handrail, enjoying the mind-boggling view on an ocean of worshippers, catching your breath.

Inside the cave, devotees will say their final prayer before a priest awakens them from their trance. Their friends will gently remove hook after hook from the back and smear large amounts of ashes onto the broken and raw skin.

The tension, the trance, the pain and stress, all will be sucked up within minutes, like a miracle—until next year.

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Assistant Editor: Paige Vignola

Image via WikiMedia

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