Our driver turned around and asked us; “Are you guys on your way to the Thaipusam festival?” I have been excited for days, I knew that I was going to see something extraordinary and out of this world and my face revealed this. I told him that that we were, and that I’ve actually been waiting for this moment for a while. He smiled and he proudly told us that he was a Kavadi last year, a person who undergoes physical torture in order to ask help from the Hindu god of war, Murugan. He told us about the many phases of the festival from the moment that the huge silver chariot leaves from little India, the coconuts that people smash on the streets which symbolizes breaking your ego and revealing purity from within but also about the second day where devotees undergo severe pains to show their loyalty to the god of war. “You guys will witness something very, very special” he said with his toothless smile but this was not enough to prepare us for the madness that we were about to see…
My parents visited the three day festival in Georgetown, Penang 30 years ago which is also held at the Batu Caves close to Kuala Lumpur and in other places in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore and Bangladesh. The festival remained very unknown around the world and mostly visited by locals. Maybe people are just not ready to witness faces pierced with skewers and spears, backs pierced by flesh hooks with ropes attached which were pulled by other people or sometimes by whole families. You will see devotees in trance with their eyes rolled up and no emotions whatsoever. But also a beautiful chariot driving through the streets covered with piles of broken coconuts and covered in a thick layer of coconut milk to purify the roads. You will see the Indian community with beautiful traditional clothing full of colors and painted flowers and decorated buildings everywhere. After my parents showed me pictures of this festival full of horrors and beauty, I just had to see this for myself.
And so here I was in Malaysia at 6 o’clock in the morning on my way to the festival with an Indian taxi driver preparing me for what I was about to see and two guys from London who I’ve met earlier. We pulled up on the barricaded streets close to the festival where we had to continue on foot. We entered the masses of colorful dressed people, the women were dressed in beautiful Sari’s, pieces of cloths lined with colored stitches and the guys wearing mostly white sari’s around their legs and fancy shirts in all sorts of colors. There was cheerful Indian music playing everywhere and people were dancing on the streets bustling with people.
Around 800,000 people came to Georgetown, Penang for the festival, mostly people who came from other parts of Malaysia, (I counted 7 tourists in the three days of the festival.)
The streets were lined up with food stalls and little shops selling everything from Indian music to bracelets and offerings for the Hindu gods. We passed two Hindu temples until we’ve reached an area where it started to be really crowded and that’s where I saw the first Kavadi, a devotee carrying out physical offerings to the god of war.
(Only read further if you are ready for some pictures and words about intense physical pain)
We first saw the massive Peacock feathers high above the crowd with flower decorations around it, all supported by a metal frame. As we went closer we saw that most of the frame was carried by metal pins that went into the skin of the person walking underneath it. I went through the crowd to get a closer look but nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. The man had big flesh hooks pierced through his skin in the back just like the ones I saw from pictures that my parents showed me. The hooks were pulled by a guy behind him and you clearly saw the tension on the skin as the guy pulled the ropes, sometimes soft and sometimes so hard that you’d think the skin would rip. But the skin did not rip, the skin did not bleed and even though the devotee must have had around 20 deep holes in his body he didn’t show a sign of pain.
We walked with the guy for a while until we saw another Kavadi leaning on something that looked like a wooden chair and the rest of his body was supported by two other guys that looked like they had to keep him on his feet. He seemed absent as if his mind was not in this world and his eyes stared blankly in front of him, he didn’t seem to notice the people who were walking past him or me while I was walking towards him full of curiosity and disbelief.
His upper body was covered in huge white horn shells and white carved elephants and his lower body was covered by around twenty silver and gold urns filled with milk. All these attributes were attached to the body by little hooks pierced through the skin.
I got a bit closer which was not difficult since most of the Indian people did not pay as much attention to the man as if it was a very normal sight for them. When I could see the man’s face I noticed his many piercings spread out around his face with the biggest being a huge pin pierced right through his cheeks and three smaller ones that went from in front of his nose, though his tongue which was sticking out, and through his lower lip. This guy literally had his tongue pierced in a way that he could not move it anymore and so half his tongue was sticking out.
And that was not everything, multiple silver decorational chains were attached to his ears and forehead with little pins. This man, unlike the other one we saw before, looked like he was in immense pain but his eyes still stared blankly as if he didn’t see the people in front of him, his eyes didn’t move or blink at all.
Again there was no blood even though these piercings and these holes in his tongue, his face and his skin all over his body were made just a couple of hours ago, we’ve heard that the preparations of the Kavadi started around 3am after which they set out on foot to the temple. That means that these people were already walking the whole morning for over 25 kilometers in the burning sun and 36 degrees at around 7 o’clock in the morning (and of course, barefoot).
We went further seeing more and more devotees all with different piercings and several creative ways of showing their god that they would go through immense pain to prove their loyalty. It wasn’t long until we reached the stairs with several small temples surrounding it and a big square filled with flip-flops, sandals and shoes. You weren’t aloud to wear anything on your feet if you wanted to go up the stairs and so we left our shoes behind and started climbing.
The heat was already intense and everybody tried to catch the little parts of shade that were left on the way up. Around us were people who, even though they lived in this country and were probably more used to the heat, couldn’t take it and some fell to their feet under the burning sun. Half way up we found the guy with the pierced tongue and lips again while people were busy trying to find a way to give him some water without removing any of the skewers. They ended up pouring water over his tongue which he couldn’t move and we were wondering whether he could actually swallow it if water did end up in his mouth which was very unlikely. This was even for us a little bit too much as we were afraid that he might rip something while trying to swallow. So we carried on and after about 15 minutes we reached the top of the stairs and the waterfall temple.
Around us were stalls offering lemonade to everyone who was climbing to keep everyone hydrated. Everything was free and they even asked whether I had a bottle with me so they could fill it for me, they told me to be careful in this heat and to drink enough. They were so nice to us everywhere and everybody was eager to tell us everything about the festival and its traditions.
We were standing in line inside the beautiful white temple surrounded by people sitting and lying on the ground with their hands together in prayer to pay respects to the gods in several shrines in the temple. To our surprise we found that the bottles of milk everybody was carrying whether pierced through their skin or just in their bags or in their hands were all put in a big machine in the middle of the temple. The milk went through a large tube and ended up in a big barrel next to a gigantic statue of the god Murugan. Two guys took the milk out of that barrel and poured it over the statue. A pungent smell of milk reached our noses which soon became too much for us and we fled outside.
We found a stall outside with only Chinese people to our surprise (the first ones we saw after we entered the temple grounds) who were giving away the milk which was collected by a machine from underneath the statue and brought to the little stall by other long iron tubes.
There were so many aspects of this festival totally unknown to us and everything was still kind of hard to dig in. Next to the temple we found a huge crowd lining up around tables and we later found out that this was one of the stalls were they gave away free food. Huge mountains of rice and buckets of curry and vegetables were carried around through the pathways were the people who managed to get a seat were waiting. Everyone was sitting behind a banana leave in front of them which functioned as a plate where the food was served on. I noticed that everyone was very patient and nobody was really pushing, there was an atmosphere of friendliness and peace which we didn’t expect from people lining up for free food.
As we moved further we talked with some locals and discovered that some of them walked barefoot for over 130 kilometers to reach the temple, it took them 5 days and they slept mostly in gas stations and on the streets. If you see the devotion and the loyalty to their Hindu gods it almost makes you believe everything they say.
For me this was such an eye opening experience, not only to see that religion brings people together, especially in times like this, but also to see that true devotion still exist.
In these times where religion is still used to kill innocent people it is heartwarming to see that these people care about each other so much, and that religion is used to welcome others instead of treating them as lower or less than you for not believing in the same things. People who are complete strangers help one another back on their feet, they give free lemonade and food to everybody who passes and they’ll tell you to be careful and take as much as you can carry. They love to chat about their culture and answer all your questions about it with pride. They don’t care if you’re an Atheist, a Muslim, Christian or something else, they don’t care if you’re Chinese, Indonesian, Malay or Indian everyone is treated with respect and encouraged to join the festivities.
I was expecting to witness some really amazing things at Thaipusam 2016, but I never imagined being so amazed by all the bizarre things that were surrounding me. These three days were so surreal for me and the people I was with and even when I see the videos and pics now I can’t believe what I’ve seen. Although I already saw the pictures from my parents and online and read about the festival in advance, I was not expecting this at all. Even if you don’t want to see the pierced bodies and faces, you’ll still find this festival very interesting and it’s worth to visit for everyone. Even only to witness the amazing warmhearted people from India and Malaysia that will welcome you as if you’ve been their best friend for years.
Thaipusam stole my heart and this is definitely an experience that I would never forget.
The first two pictures and the picture of the people lining up for food were made by the amazing photo- and videographer George Hines who was with me this day.