Day 237: Hey Murugan, I’ll pierce my back if you do me a solid

DISCLAIMER: The photos in this blog may be disturbing to some. If you think your stomach will churn at the sight of 40+ piercings in someone’s chest or back, I’d recommend you just skip this one. If you think you can handle it, read on!

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Indians both in India and abroad. It’s celebrated on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ (January or February) and is dedicated to Murugan, the god of war and favors. It’s for the favors received that devotees carry ‘kavadi’ (burdens) over a distance of about 3 miles to give thanks. As I understand it, devotees ask for favors throughout the year and vow to carry a kavadi during the Thaipusam festival to fulfill their vow. The bigger the favor granted, the more elaborate the kavadi required to repay the favor.

Elaborate Kavadi + Tongue and Cheek Piercings

I saw a variety of kavadi ranging from slightly burdensome to incredibly painful. The most common was a metal pot of milk carried on the head. Even though it was the least burdensome of them all, I imagine even this would get heavy after a 3-mile walk. More painful kavadi included tongue and cheek piercings, sandals made of nails, elaborate metal hoops decorated with peacock feathers (a symbol of Murugan) laced with long metal skewers piercing the stomach and back, and thick metal hooks placed in the skin of the back to pull carts containing large shrines.

Walking on Nails

Even kids participate!

Shrine on Wheels Kavadi

Hooks in his back to pull the shrine

Since there’s an inherent gore to the festival I was surprised that Thaipusam had a very festive atmosphere. Many men carrying large kavadi had what I would call a personal ‘cheerleader’ walking with them from the beginning (Perumal Temple in Little India) until they made their offering at the very end (Tank Road Temple near Robertson Quay). The cheerleaders sang and did chants and encouraged some fancy spinning for those with a hoop kavadi to show off their feathers. Many devotees had family accompanying them on the walk as well.

Perumal Temple & Confetti

An Elaborate Kavadi

I had read about this festival during our preparations for moving to Singapore and was disappointed that we weren’t expected to be there for it. I’m thankful our departure was delayed and I was able to witness Thaipusam. I’m not sure my description can really capture the essence of the festival: there’s more energy and less gore than you would imagine for a festival of this kind. It was probably one of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed in my life… so far!

Empty Milk Cartons from Offerings made to Murugan

More photos of Thaipusam in all its glory HERE!