Thaipusam Festival in Singapore
Thaipusam is a Hindu celebration of devotion, occurring on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan/Feb). It is a time to give thanks to Muruga, the son of Shiva. Thaipusam is celebrated in many places around the world, with the largest observances in India, Singapore, and Malaysia. Aren't we lucky it is celebrated here in Singapore!
My friend H and I went last year (click here to see the photos) and were mesmerized by the event. At the end of my post I wrote... “next year, I hope to get to see the actual piercing take place”…. well guess what? We went to the temple and saw the actual piercings! Oh my. If you are bothered by needles or piercings, you probably should not read any further!
And not only did we watch the piercings, we were invited to walk with a family - read all about this further down! It truly is one of the most bazaar religious festivals in the world. This year it fell January 27th, a Sunday, so D was able to join us. Last year’s post has many facts, so please visit here if you want to learn more about this celebration.
The preparations and the piercings.
Holy ash is placed on the needle before the piercing. They say the sacred ash prevents pain, bleeding, scarring, and infection. Some say it is made of burnt cow dung which has medicinal features and contains a styptic, similar to the shaving pencil that constricts blood vessels to stop shaving cuts from bleeding. It also contains natural local numbing component.
It must be something special as there is absolutely NO bleeding during the piercings. What about sterilization you ask? There wasn't any, other than the cow dung. Prepare yourself for this video! Just click on it to start.
D watched and photographed this man's journey.
The devotee begins mental preparations a month in advance. They are only allowed to eat vegetarian food, cooked at home. They observe strict celibacy, no alcohol or drugs. They also fast several days before the walk.
A sigh of relief, the first piercing is complete.
It is said that a small spear pierced through the tongue "symbolizes" the vow of silence. I am pretty sure it would be impossible for him to speak so I think it is a little more than a symbol!
He is ready for the day.
This teen caught my eye, so I stayed with him through his piercing. They started by hanging "burdens" on his back. You will see a photo of his back later in the post.
A little liquid to keep him going.
They then pinned a green feather emblem to his chest. The photo below shows his piercing guru coaching him. I read that they put the subject in a trance before skewering the skin.
I could feel the support of his friends... and I could feel his pain. Family and friends surround the devotee and loudly chant to the gods as he is being pierced. Watch the friend on his left with the sun glasses in the series of photos - how he coaches him during the entire process.
There it goes. There is NEVER any blood. Mind boggling!
I like this photo... his friends are all cheering him on. He did not have a tongue piercing. They say that is a more advanced piercing and this teen is pretty young; it is probably his first time.
Other piercings at the temple...
Muruga (who the celebration honors) is regarded as a destroyer of evil and preserver of good. He is usually depicted with a spear. This is why the devotees pierce silver spears in various sizes through the skin of the back, cheek, and tongue. It is a symbol of stopping evil, purifying yourself, and becoming more noble.
The tip of the spear actually goes through the skin.
I think he was psyching himself up for the long walk.
Jars filled with milk hanging by hooks in the skin is a way to show devotion.
Check out those large hooks to go with those big ones!
Most devotee are of Tamil - Indian descent. There were a few Asian guys who participated.
Another way to show devotion is by hooking smaller burdens like lemons or limes on the chest or back.
There were colorful offerings at the temple. In Hinduism, food plays an important role in rituals and worship. The food offered to the gods is called prasada. The Sanskrit word "prasada" means "mercy," or the divine grace of God.
The three of us separated to take photos in the temple. After 30 min or so D comes to get me – he says… we’ve been invited to walk with a family! What? H was chatting with a young women (below) whose brother was walking for the first time carrying a Kavadi and she asked us to walk with them. Oh my gosh – what an honor!
"Our guy" was a 23-year-old student. He was carrying his kavati (headdress) with a belt vs directly in his skin. His sister told us this is a "trainer".
Thaipusam is a family affair and supporting a kavadi bearer is the duty and honor of each family member. His sister is helping him with his ankle bells.
We felt odd at first, not sure if we really should join in this special celebration. We decided that we would insult them if we declined. Here is the view as we walked out of the temple.
This photo gives a good perspective on how tall the headdress can be.
The first young man in this video is our guy! It is hard enought to just walk, every once in awile they dance. Click on the middle to start the video.
If you look closely at the more senior devotee below, you can see where his kavadi rod goes directly into his skin on his stomach.
Here is D walking in the parade.
It was just over 3 miles and we walked the entire way barefoot. Although not that big of a deal when you are walking with men carrying heavy headdresses with pins and rods in their skin!
Some walk the entire three miles on spiked shoes.
It was fun seeing the parade from the participants perspective. One British woman in the crowd made the comment to us that we must be very special friends of the family to be walking with them. Very few westerners walk in the parade.
Below is the teen I photographed for the piercing. I am guessing these are "trainers" as well, as they do not have the weight of the lemons or the milk cans.
Very few women participate in the piercing. But I think there were more this year than last.
Some devotees choose to shave their heads, a symbol of humility and atonement/ fulfillment. The yellow color on their heads is saffron paste or sandalwood paste.
Even women and children shave their heads.
Not all worship involves self inflicted pain, and many men and women make the walk with an urn of milk on their head. I read it is in thanks for any children born that year.
We viewed the ceremony from a very different perspective this year. We saw the love and loyalty of family and friends. This is my favorite photo below It was at the very end of the parade and they were backed up getting into the temple to take off all the spears and head wear. It was very hot and they had been walking for over 4 hours. Our guy is holding on to his sister and father. I love his sister's worried look on her face - feeling the pain and exhaustion her brother was experiencing.
We did know their names; I just did not want to put them in the blog. We also talked with his friends and family as we walked. A few hours into it we were even clapping along with them. We did not understand the chants so we could only clap.
Certainly an experience we will never forget!