View of temple

Photos courtesy of Michael Bush


Hindu Festival With a Hook,
Well, Lots of Hooks

| published April 27, 2016 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review contributor

The Hindu festival of Thaipusam is one of the most intense cultural experiences of my life thus far. And that is saying quite a lot, seeing as how I’ve done some pretty strange and bizarre things in my time abroad. I knew that the rituals carried out over the course of this weekend long festival would be rife with mortification of the flesh. I also knew there would extremely loud Indian music, plus the intense heat and humidity of Malaysia, and added to all that crowds which were expected to number in the millions.

packed crowds
packed crowds

But I was intent on experiencing this colorful festival with my senses wide open, ready to be a part of something big, despite any worries about being uncomfortable. The best experiences of traveling tend to make you a little bit uncomfortable. (If you would like validation of my belief in this theory, check out my article on eating bugs; Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things to Eat, Thursday Review).

Lord Murugan, the Hindu God of war, is the central figure of Thaipusam. The main idea of this celebration is for the devotees to pray for bad traits to be destroyed. This could mean you want to be less selfish, or you want your mother’s cancer to be healed, or you want your business to do better. Things of that nature. The same stuff Christians would ask God in their prayers, basically.

But in order to have these blessing bestowed upon them, the Hindu devotees make a bargain with Lord Murugan. First, they agree to be pure for 48 days before Thaipusam. This means being celibate, not eating processed food or meat and eating instead only fresh and healthy vegetarian food. Also during this period they should not use any luxurious items, such as shoes, or beds, or soaps. They should live plainly and purely. How they go about doing so is really up to each person, but they will be tested on their purity before they can participate in the festival. But I’ll get to that part in a minute.
heading up to another temple

Anyone is welcome to come and walk with the devotees during Thaipusam. The city closes off the streets, and a long walking path is cleared for people to traverse. It leads from a temple, where preparations are made, to another temple atop a tall hill. It was a long walk for me in that hot Malaysian sun. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for the people bearing their burdens for Lord Murugan. pulled by the hooks

You see, the bargain they make in order to receive that which they have prayed for includes carrying a kavadi, a heavy burden of different types. Some people simply carry a jug of milk, which they use to wash the statue of Lord Murugan at the end of the walk. But the larger your request, the larger your burden must be, or the more you wish to impress the Gods, the more you are willing to go through to earn the blessing. So, many people make bargains that involve carrying very heavy burdens. This includes piercing their skin with hooks, needles, and small spears; the skin of the back, the tongue, the cheeks, the chest, the forehead. Some make a bargain to have dozens of hooks through the skin of their back with ropes tied to them, and a member of their family, or a friend, will help them by pulling on the ropes, hard. This causes resistance, making the task harder for the devotee to reach the end goal.

Small Kavadi
Big Kavadi
Big Kavadi

I made my way to the start of the long walk, to see the preparations being made. The family of the person performing these acts will all gather in support of their loved one. I saw dozens and dozens of men in a trance-like state, mentally preparing for what they were about to go through. A banana leaf or new towel is laid on the ground and covered in offering. The devotee then either lays on the ground for his back hooks, or stays standing to receive facial piercings and a kavadi. Before the piercings are performed, ash is rubbed on the area to cleanse it and make it pure. Since cows are sacred in Hinduism, this ash is made from burnt cow dung, which is believed to have antiseptic qualities, or so I was told. Then begins the test. Yeah, remember that? Did they suffer enough in those 48 days before the festival? Are they pure enough?

Red pigment, not blood

The test is quite simple really. If you bleed one single drop of blood while being pierced through the tongue, cheeks, forehead, chest, back, legs… anywhere… you fail. You cannot complete your task, you will not receive your blessing from Lord Murugan. How crappy would that feel? Your family would be disappointed and embarrassed. You would be so ashamed because everyone would think you weren’t devout enough to give up enough luxuries, or that you maybe broke the law of celibacy or ate meat. It would be a nightmare, and you couldn’t make up for it until the next year. Yikes.

multiple piercings

Anyway, once they are all poked and tied, the devotees begin the long, hot walk. Their families walk beside them in support, and making sure no one gets hurt by the awkwardly large kavadis. At each intersection, a lime is cut in four pieces and tossed in each direction. Limes are believed to ward off evil spirits, and intersections are where the ghosts can get you, I guess. Coconuts are also smashed on the ground because of the purity of the liquid inside, which has never been touched by anyone or anything. Chants of, “Veil, Veil!” and basically non-stop during the long walk, veil being the word for Lord Murugan’s weapon—a spear, smaller versions of which are stuck through peoples skin all over the festival.
Free drinks

Once we got closer the temple at the end, but before the hellish climb up the 513 steps to the top, is when we found the party. Up until that point, it was just walking, chanting “veil, veil!” and being hot. But as we got to the actual festival grounds, things changed. The music blared at ear bleeding levels from different stalls, each being hosted by a business or family. Many of these stalls provided fruity drinks, free of charge to anyone. Other stalls provided incredible Indian food, also free of charge to anyone. Yes, free food and drinks at Thaipusam. Incredible stuff. And they want you to have it. They will chase you down to give you free food, even if you already have four take-away containers from other stalls. Meanwhile, the devotees are still trudging along, not able to eat until they have completed their journey. It was around this time I saw a man walking on shoes made of nails, like a bed of nails for each foot.

Nail shoes
walking on nails

Once they reach the temple atop the hill, their burdens are all removed. The milk that they carried up with them, either in a bucket tied to their kavadi, or in a large pot balanced on their head, or in loads of small pots attached to their bodies by hooks, is taken off and used to rinse clean the statue in the temple. Then, that milk is collected from the base of the statue, and served outside the temple free of charge! Blessed milk that has been carried through the hot sun for hours, then poured over a statue, and then served warm under that same hot sun. Thinking of Will Ferrell in Anchorman, I decided that milk was a bad choice, and opted not to drink it.

Carrying milk pots on heads
wearing milk pots

Once done here, the devotees walk back down the hill where they get in line to have their heads shaved. Free of charge! After that, they are free to go eat all the delicious free food they want and, let’s be honest, they earned the heck out of that food.

Free food

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things to Eat; Michael Bush;Thursday Review; November 21, 2015.

The Joys of Orange Chicken; Michael Bush;Thursday Review; January 24, 2016.