Hooked on Thaipusam

In this annual Malaysian festival, thousands of devotees carry offerings pierced onto their bodies -- and feel no pain.

Published June 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Thaipusam is a Hindu Festival celebrated in January or February (it falls on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai when the astrological star, Pusam, reigns). On this day, Goddess Parvathi gave her son Murugan the invincible vel (lance) to vanquish the evil asura (demons). Thus Thaipusam is a commemoration of the triumph of good over evil.

This year, about a million people converged on Malaysia's Batu Caves to observe the rites, and I was one of them. Most of the devotees had come to give thanks for blessings received. Many had asked for something in particular -- a child or the health of a family member, for example -- and had vowed to perform one of the Thaipusam devotions such as wearing a vel, bearing a kavadi (literally, "burden," such as a pitcher or jug) or carrying a milk pot offering up the 276 steps to the cave temple. Couples who had recently been blessed with a baby carried the infant in a saffron-colored sarong slung between sugarcane poles. As part of the ritual, some devotees had shaved their heads and those of their children, brought offerings of fruit and milk and bathed in the nearby Batu River.

I went to Thaipusam at about 3 in the morning with the Malaysian Cultural Group, comprising three busloads of mostly Caucasian expatriates. When we got to the caves, the crowd was already huge. I would estimate that it consisted of 90 percent devotees and 10 percent people bearing cameras.

My friend Kirsten wasn't there. When I had asked her to come, she had answered, "No offense, but the thought of a million sweating people all crammed together climbing a mountain under a tropical sun doesn't sound like my idea of a good time." Romy, on the other hand, was there -- and said it reminded her of the Minnesota State Fair. I said it was like Halloween in Greenwich Village, with more S&M.

Of course, Thaipusam is strange. This year, I spent a good portion of my time down by the river where the devotees prepare by going into trances. After going into a trance state, devotees are said to be unaware of pain. This would be helpful, as they then don the kavadis, which can weigh up to 50 pounds. Usually the kavadi is hooked onto the carrier with 108 steel hooks inserted into the skin of the chest, back and face.

Other people wear skewers to represent the vel. Some vels are steel rods about the diameter of a little finger and three to four feet long that are pierced through the cheeks. Smaller vels are about six inches long and pierce the tongue vertically, making it impossible for the wearer to put his or her tongue inside the mouth. Some young men travel from the riverside to the cave with large steel hooks in their backs, accompanied by friends who pull backwards on the devotee so that the skin comes away from the flesh and bones.

It is universally reported that devotees feel no pain, bleed very little, if at all, and are left with no scars. I myself watched men and women piercing their cheeks and tongues and observed only very little bleeding. I also watched the devotees as they left the cave and observed no signs of violence on any of them. When I asked how this was possible, I was told, "The God takes away the scars."

A kavadi carrier or vel wearer does not go through the ordeal alone but is generally accompanied by an entourage of friends and family. Some of the entourage also wear vels or hooks. Some carry burning camphor censors or pots of milk. Some of the entourage chant and play music, mostly drums. At least some of the members of the entourage are not in trances, and these people clear a path through the onlookers, carry a chair for the kavadi bearer, wipe away sweat, provide water and steer.

Thus, as befits a religious devotion, the ordeal is a communal endeavor. While men carry the large kavadis, they are supported in this by parents and spouses and children and friends. One of the most beautiful things about Thaipusam is the closeness and support that one sees -- children gathered around a laboring father; husbands supporting entranced wives; adolescents steering entranced parents; and mothers and fathers bearing babies and young children.

It is more disturbing to see women in trances than to see men similarly affected. The women in the throes of religious ecstasy -- with their hair unbound and uncombed, tongues artificially reddened with saffron powder and lewdly flitting in and out of their mouths, crazy/sensual smiles, eyes rolling and breasts and hips undulating -- violate even my notions of propriety on a deeply visceral level. It is an abandonment of self-control, at once spiritual and lewdly sexual. In history one reads of such phenomena. In Greece, according to "The Bacchae" of Euripides, the Dionysian rites are said to have deeply disturbed some elements of the community.

I left the Batu Caves and hailed a cab. The driver was a Tamil Hindu who had made his pilgrimage the night before. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question," he inquired. "Why do you come to Thaipusam? What interests you about it?"

An interesting question. I suppose one first comes to witness the spectacle: the hooks, the spears, the heavy kavadis and the trances. But certainly I don't come year after year for the sight of pain (there doesn't seem to be much). I think I come because Thaipusam is the happiest celebration of the year: the flat plain and steep hill between the Batu River and Caves encompassing spirituality, catharsis and social bonds, but also the celebration of life, of love, of happiness. This is what I told him: "I go to Thaipusam because it makes me profoundly joyous."

By Gail Saari

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