Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thaipusam - a pierced procession for Murugan

Yesterday, I followed the annual Thaipusam procession in Singapore for the first time. This colorful religious tradition - that feels like an anachronism in today's modern Singapore - originates from the Chettiars, South Indian Tamil immigrants that arrived in Singapore in early 19th century; the same group initiated the similar but more famous Thaipusam tradition held at the Batu caves in Malaysia.
When celebrating Thaipusam, devotees demonstrate their faith to Lord Murugan, son of Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati, by carrying kavadis (literally "burdens") through a 4.5 km long processional route on busy Singaporean streets. Kavadis range from simple wooden constructions and limes or milk pots hanging from hooks to elaborate spear ("vel") kavadis consisting of up to 108 long spikes pierced directly onto the carriers' bodies. In addition, devotees have skewers pierced through their tongue and cheeks, and holy ash applied to their bodies. Not for the fainthearted, truly.

'Why?' was my first reaction to the procession. And then: 'what could possibly be gained by torturing oneself in this way?' So I had to look for answer from those with more insight, and found following notes: by carrying a kavadi, "the devotee becomes a carrier or a vehicle himself and the act of lifting the kavadi is almost akin to assimilating spirit of the divinity within one's self. Many devotees associate this act as a humbling experience and believe that the vel dispels of ignorance and ego. Some of them feel they are recharging themselves, or purifying themselves as well as praying for the well being of their family and friends". And even if some people I know refuse attending Thaipusam calling it primitive and barbaric, the devotion of the kavadi bearers seemed so strong that I felt honored by them letting me photograph their labors of faith.

The piercings are said to inflict no pain as well as leave no scars (no blood is spilled during the process, which is well documented by many onlookers and photographers). Before Thaipusam, devotees go through a 48 day spiritual cleansing, which also involves a strict regime of fasting, abstinence and prayer.
Another devotee had hooked limes to his back and on the skewers leading through his cheeks...

Whole extended families participate and support their own kavadi carriers through the processional route through Singaporean streets.

 Even women participate, carrying milk pots symbolizing blood offered to Murugan.
A tired-looking young kavadi carrier - he didn't have any fat to cushion between the long spikes and his muscles, unlike some older devotees...
The piercing of the tongue and the cheeks are a symbolic (and actual) renunciation of the gift of speech and language in order to enable the devotee might concentrate more fully upon Lord Murugan.
 No age limits here - even the tiniest family members are obviously not too young to participate - in prams, or carried on shoulders.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Early morning at Thian Hock Keng Temple

A breakfast for those on the other side... despite the early hour, someone had already left a bag of food, some coffee and incense in front of a shrine with ancestral tablets that are bought to commemorate dead family members. 

Calm before the storm... All temples related to Chinese religions here in Singapore are busy preparing for the Lunar New Year in the end of January. Thian Hock Keng temple is no exception. There will be over two weeks of praying, diverse rituals and ceremonies to welcome the Year of the Horse, and to secure all possible blessings, from health and wealth to fertility and other prosperity. I took these pictures on an early morning visit and they are deceptively serene, so much is happening behind the scenes for the moment...
Cultural diversity is what I love most about Singapore - just scratch the surface, and something interesting pops up behind every corner, easily accessible for all to learn from and to enjoy.

The story of Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street started in the 1820's, the early days of Singapore, as a humble joss house (a place to prayer and offerings) dedicated to Ma Zu Po, the Goddess of Sea and protector of sojourners. Many Chinese immigrants arrived with boats from Fujian (Hokkien), and went directly to the temple to offer thanks to Ma Zu for their safe journeys. Built in Southern Chinese architectural style, no nails were used when constructing it - and when renovated in the early 2000's, same methods were strictly followed. Thian Hock Keng is still one of the most popular temples in Singapore.   

The handsome entrance to the temple, with a pair of Foo lions and elaborately carved roof with countless Buddhist deities. The tessellated tiles and the cast iron fence are typical Colonial features - the cast iron was imported from Britain. It functioned as ballast in the trading ships that unloaded it here and filled their bellies with oriental trading goods from silk to spices in the Singaporean harbor. We had a veranda with very similar tiles in our Victorian house in Melbourne (it was built in 1890) - the old colonies share so much in so many ways...

A closer look at the entrance doors, with golden dragons and probably a depiction of one of the Eight Immortals, a group of beings that possess supernatural powers who can heal the sick, predict the future and transform themselves into other beings or even animals.

 More tiles and beautiful woodwork - no nails used! - in the inner courtyard of the temple.
 The main altar for Ma Zu is to the right - photography strictly not allowed there.

 View towards the main altar, with a large bronze incense burner in the middle; it is covered with lucky symbols like bats (bats are called "fu" in Chinese which sounds like "luck").

 Early morning maintenance work... beautiful old Singaporean shophouses behind the temple walls.

 A lovely, simple side entrance to the main altar. And more tiles, which were very much loved as decoration on temples and houses - and even tombs - by the Singaporean Chinese.

 An altar for Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, with the Moon Goddess and Sun God on each side. Guanyin means "Observer of Sound", so she hears the cries of all living beings, helps those in need and delivers salvation. Together with Ma Zu, she is one of the most revered goddesses here, and belongs to both Buddhist and Daoist pantheons.

Guanyin also helps infertile women to conceive - here, small dolls and even nappies had been left to her helper, the Moon Goddess.

 The Chinese are so beautifully inclusive in their religious lives; there's no need to select one, just choose whatever suits you from the Buddhist, Daoist and even Confucian religions and philosophies - a thinking that would be great if it would be adopted in some other parts of the world... Here, Confucius (Kong Zi), Chinese philosopher who lived about 2500 years ago, whose teachings still influence the daily lives of the Chinese today.

 Confucius taught the importance of wisdom, common education, cultivation of noble human character and development of one’s thinking - here, red banners are hung under the roof by his altar, expressing wishes for success in upcoming exams.

Bats everywhere - from roof tiles to bronze vessels to stone carvings, these little good luck symbols can be found throughout the temple. Here, people have rubbed the bat for an extra touch of luck so many times that it has turned black and almost shiny.
Yet another elaborately carved and painted side entrance. Sometimes people complain about Singapore being too orderly and clean, but I have to admit that I enjoy seeing these cultural treasures without graffiti tags or other doodles...and knowing they will be quite safe from them even in future.
A new pictorial tour coming up next week - the festival of Thaipusam will be celebrated on Friday by the Hindu community in Singapore, just in right time for my current South Asia studies!