You have never had pins and needles like this! Thaipusam, a festival commemorating the feats of Hindu God, Lord Subramaniam, is notable for the sacrificial piercing of devotees flesh. Thaipusam is celebrated by the Tamil people who originated in southern India. It generally takes place around January or February, during the full moon of the tenth Tamil month. With Tamil people having now spread around the world, taking Thaipusam with them, I was able to observe the unique spectacle in the streets of Singapore.
Way back where it all began
The festival originates in southern India where the Tamil people of Hindu faith revere Lord Subramaniam (or Lord Murugar) in particular. It is said that Lord Subramaniam was sent by his father, Lord Siva, to conquer demons that were wrecking havoc amongst a group of celestial beings that pleaded for Siva’s help. To help with the task, Subramaniam’s mother, Pavarti, gave him a golden spear with which he was able to skewer the demons.
Sacrifices for granted wishes
Subramaniam is now associated with youth, power, virtue and defeating evil by the Tamil people. He is also believed to grant wishes or favours. So to show their devotion to the deity, as well as gratitude for favours and reversal of negative karma, participants prepare for a month leading up to the Thaipusam festival in his honor. This is done through prayer, abstinence, and a strict vegetarian diet, as well as fasting completely for up to two days immediately before the big day.
The image of a victorious Subramaniam—bedazzled with gems, holding a gilt spear and riding a chariot—is recreated for Thaipusam and is the subject of a procession on the eve of the event. Early on the actual morning of Thaipusam, devotees walk up to four kilometres between temples. Some, bear pots of milk to offer to the deity at the end of their long walk, while others wear piercings through their tongues and cheeks. But the ultimate show of devotion is left to those that carry a Kavadi—which translates to “sacrifice with every step.”
The Kavadi is symbolic of a mountain with Subramaniam at its peak. The structures takes various forms, the most common being a steel or wooden frame with bars that sit across the shoulders for support. They are decorated with flowers, palm leaves and feathers, and attached to a person through numerous spikes that pass through their bare flesh!
Closely observing the festival first hand, I saw heart-warming community spirit and family bonds. Participants were both men and women, and of all ages, each with their own entourage of supporters. Through chanting, singing, dancing, coaching, head scratches, water pouring, chair supply and injury massages along the course of the procession, there was great support shown by those escorting devotees in their sacrifice.
The only thing I expected to see with the amount of flesh being pierced, but seemed completely absent, was blood! Although some Kavadi carriers did tire towards the end, the pierced participants did not show signs of pain even as pins, needles, hooks and rods went in and came out.
I highly recommend taking any opportunity to observe Thaipusam. Those outside the Tamil community are generally welcome to witness and photograph the festival. Just be prepared to take off your shoes if you would like to enter the temples, and maintain a respectful distance when taking photos.
To those who participated in Thaipusam, I hope Lord Subramaniam grants you many favours!