I won’t pretend to understand everything that Hinduism stands for. When faced with such a foreign belief as this, I’m inclined to fold. That’s how attending Thaipusam made me feel at least: present, yet oddly unaware. Since moving to Malaysia about eight months ago, I had etched out in my mind a specific set of questions I wanted to know before seeing the festival, but few answers prepared me for what lay ahead. On the full moon of the Tamil month Thai, a legion of devotees in Kuala Lumpur end a 48-day fast by embarking on an arduous march; skewered through their cheeks with metal spears known as vel, bearing hooks and pins on their back, chest and arms, they set out across the city in trance while entirely barefoot.
Before I surmise the images, sounds and smells that this festival entails, I feel compelled to share with the reader a nugget of wisdom I carried with me to the Batu Caves on that day, site of the ritualistic denouement where devotees relinquish themselves from trance and unhook their kavadi, burdens borne for the sake of imploring Lord Murugan, the Tamil god of war and victory. In his book Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria observes:
Every family forges its own distinct version of Hinduism. You can pay your respects to some beliefs and not to others. You can believe in none at all. You can be a vegetarian or eat meat. You can pray or not pray. None of these choices determines whether you are a Hindu. There is no heresy or apostasy, because there is no core set of beliefs, no doctrine, and no commandments. Nothing is required, nothing is forbidden.
While not applicable to Thaipusam whole cloth, Zakaria’s understanding is helpful to have when participating in any Hindu festival. It is in essence the rough outline of a belief that is ambiguous, a formula that allows open doors for foreigners like me to intrude into moments both intimate and raw.
It is said that devotees take up this onerous ritual only if there is something climactic and/or catastrophic happening in their lives. To have Murugan’s blessings, they need to evoke him, and this display apparently gets his attention. There are several ways worshippers do this during Thaipusam, most of which usually require carrying or hauling something: light half-circle structures that are hoisted on the shoulder; milk pots (paal kudam) placed on the head; larger five-meter alters (kavadi) that weigh approximately 55 kilograms and resemble parade floats that are strapped to the shoulders and waist of a devotee. Then – the most gruesome burden in my opinion – there are those who are held by numerous cords hooked through their back to kavadi or, alternatively, by another worshipper that reins them in like a musher driving a dog sled.
Starting from before dawn, the precession needles through Kuala Lumpur; it’s already 10am by the time I reach the first gateway, and a mob of local and foreigner onlookers numbering in the thousands congests the narrow pathway that leads up to the 272-step staircase at the base of the limestone caves. From afar, the peacock feathers adorning the top of kavadis seem to bob in the crowd like dark lime green shuttlecocks caught in the current of a shadowy sea. Next to the staircase, a 42.7 meter golden statue of Lord Murugan – the largest of its kind in the world – overlooks the mass sagaciously, as if he were shepherd keeping tally of his flock one-by-one.
The smell of acrid incense hangs heavily in the air. Indeed, some devotees are being flagellated with lit sticks as they advance in a somnambulistic daze under constant assault from the oppressive sun. After entering the fray, I move forward, tailing worshippers banging drums to a hypnotically melodic tempo. Without music, a Malaysian Indian colleague had informed me, their trance would be broken. To add to the hysteria, the monotonous droning of the drums occasionally gets lost in the air by competing stalls pumping Top 10 Hits like carnival game booths vying for attention. Amid the cacophony there is a certain festive atmosphere that disguises the otherwise shocking display of punctured flesh with the high spirits of a sporting event. Worshippers are visibly amused; there are food stalls selling snacks, plenty of places to rehydrate (water is offered to devotees for free) and even a booth advertising Air Asia tickets. The path to the staircase is already littered with trash of the thousands who have passed before me.
I manage to mount a small clipped iron-rod fence and jump into a well-trodden patch of grass alongside the precession route. From this vantage point, I watch the blur of sweat and strident color pass. Over music, the paced chatting of vel vel pierces the air as the crowd cheers the devotees onward. Some devotees, as if being kicked from behind, move forward in elastic jolts; others swirl and hop. A gaunt middle-aged woman masked with maroon powder makes a sudden shrieking howl in mid-turn. She is summoning the spirit of a monkey I am informed. Her teeth click and her jaw clatters as she sways in a circle, all the while balancing a milk pot on her head with one hand. Trudging down the path behind her, a young man with eight hooks strung to his back approaches in continuous – albeit sporadically slow – motion, sometimes leaning so far forward that if the blue cords pulling the skin of his back weren’t being held by another worshipper, he would fall down. Both tongue and face are covered in an electric red powder making him a ghastly sight to behold. Occasionally Indian participates stand in front of him and grab his hands, pulling and pushing each other in a sadistic tug of war that belies its intended amusement. All the while the young man’s flicking tongue and darting eyes shift in erratic directions as if individually possessed by separate spirits. For a moment I shiver; not physically, mentally.
It is a scene filled with such violent hues that — viewed through Western lenses – it bears an uncanny resemblance to The Passion of the Christ. When witnessing Thaipusam for the first time, it is not uncommon for onlookers to feel nauseated – whether local or foreign. But the likelihood of getting sick from this sight, I realize, isn’t the only thing that we share. Showing obeisance to a maimed figure stapled to wooden planks that is hung in a house of worship must be equally shocking to the unfamiliar. Who are we, I lapse into a moment of detached thoughts, to call one religion cruder than the next?
At the summit of the staircase, devotees cross the spiritual finish line. Plastic chairs are placed inside for those shouldering kavadis to sit while the artifice is unscrewed. I spot a pair of devotees with tens of limes and oranges hooked onto their chest and back collapse to their knees from exhaustion after the last step. The two are greeted by a man holding a silver tray full of hand-rolled temburni leaf cigarettes and white powder. These items are part of the final ritual. Devotees only partake in them after their burdens have been carefully removed, vel and hooks unattached. Deeper within the dimly lit cavern, men line up in front of priests and worshippers holding these trays and waiting their turn. When they’re up, some greedily inhale several cigarettes, disappearing behind a cloud of smoke that stream across a trickle of sunlight leaking through the top of the cave. A priest approaches and presses his forehead against theirs. Both let out a guttural roar that resonates through the caverns and the devotee faints upon the sticky surface of the milk- and dew-covered floor, lying their several moments, eyes closed, before mustering the strength to stand up again. Hinduism being ambiguous as it is, there are “no core set of beliefs, no doctrine, and no commandments” stating how you have to fall or if you have to scream or if you have to smoke cigarettes: the individual holds primacy. Across the low-lying center of the cave, some devotees faint into contorted, arguably aesthetically regressive poses; others lay supinely in intense ramrod figures. A foreign photographer taps the shoulder of a wide-eyed devotee with a large trident vel through his cheek to ask for a photo. The devotee responds, exhaling an exasperated hiss at him through his teeth, eyes unblinking.
After the dramatic show is through, priests and/or worshippers wipe white powder on the parts of the body that were pierced. I watch and wait to see how much blood, if any, appears, standing behind a larger man with a rolling gut to watch the proceedings: hooks unattached, cigarettes smoked, scream, faint. White powder is applied to his back as he stumbles about to his feet. I wait not even a minute before three freckles of blood seep through the dense, chalky layer. But that is it. Several more moments go by and the extent of his visible blood loss has reached its climax.
A bright saffron sheet is then wrapped around devotees’ bodies as if they had just gotten out of the shower. Spirits now pacified, their faces portray the mind of someone finding solace within themselves, impervious to the din of fellow followers around them being released from trance.