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.

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