Jun 112011


This post contains some graphic images. If blood makes you queasy, you may want to skip it.

I’ve mentioned a few times how, although I do travel mostly without plans, I also do so within a loosely scheduled framework – certain dates by which I strive to reach a certain destination.

Well, the next such date has at long last arrived. The name of that date is “Thaipusam.”

One of the most important events in the Hindu calendar, the festival of Thaipusam marks the birthday of Murugan, son of Shiva. It takes place when the Pusam constellation is at its highest point during the Hindu month of Thai – hence the name.

Although Thaipusam is celebrated in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the latter is significantly larger – so that’s where I was headed. With riotous processions attracting as many as 1.3 million devotees, plus all the usual traits of a big cultural gathering, it’s truly a spectacle to be seen.

Live music, fireworks, costumes, homemade food, and street vendors of a dizzying variety could keep even the most seasoned traveler busy for hours on end.

Still, “just another religious festival” might not seem worth reworking my entire itinerary – indeed, the sole reason I headed South from Thailand (rather than East into Cambodia) was for Thaipusam. So what makes Thaipusam specifically all that different?

This particular Hindu festival is so strange, so outlandish, so controversial that it’s actually been outlawed in India itself. Because among its millions of spectators and participants, hundreds of truly committed devotees show their belief in a way unlike any I’d ever seen.

Kavadi carriers, who subject themselves to seemingly masochistic acts of pain – all to give thanks for their answered prayers.

Some carry offerings of milk in paal kudam (milk pots), connected to their skin by hooks.

Others wear enormous vel kavadi – cages of spikes that literally pierce the skin as they’re weighed down by statues and ornate decorations.

Many penitents pierce their tongues and cheeks with long skewers and tridents – sometimes hung with objects like limes or unripe coconuts.

It’s one of those things that, even as you’re looking right at it, is almost hard to believe. Yet that still isn’t the most stunning part of the scene.

All of these piercings are carried out while in a trance, and participants claim to feel no pain; later the wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.

Have any of you ever actually seen someone go into a trance? With your own two eyes? I hadn’t, and let me tell you: from the moment I saw it there was no doubt in my mind; these people are in a completely different world.

Closer to sleepwalking zombies than humans, when you look into their eyes it’s almost like something…well, something beyond human.

There’s just nothing there, as if you’re staring right through to the back of their skull. It’s terrifying and captivating all at the same time. Some of the videos still give me the chills each and every time I see them.

This was seriously some Discovery channel shit. I’d never seen anything like it.

More photos to come.

Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place on January 19th and January 20th.

  20 Responses to “Thaipusam: Masochistic Mayhem”

  1. Actually, the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket seems to be FAR “worse”. Your guys carry spikes through their skin, in Phuket they carry entire harpoons and swords and scimtars and small trees and dumbells and whatever. It’s a very bloody affair. They also walk/stand on burning coal and climb ladders made from knives. Apparently a tourist challenged them on this once since they’re supposed to be protected by the gods, and ended up evering his feet badly. It’s in September and recommended. They also dance on firecrackers and the festival goes on for over a week.

  2. HOLY CRAP! I just Googled some images…that is even more outrageous. Never heard of it, but I’ll definitely have to add it to the list! 😉

  3. I’m 100% positive I’ve told you about this, and pretty sure I’ve shown you some pictures too. Maybe it was back in the dayz during Kyoto I.

  4. Could be, I’ve no memory of it.

  5. that is crazy……but I am not so sure I would like it

  6. Why not? Amazing photo ops!

  7. Hahaha…Aunt Pam! 😛

  8. yup. ya got to me! amazing

  9. Amazing picture of the batu caves at night! My visit to batu caves was a sleepy little journey, compared to yours! I wish I had been there to see this festival

  10. Thanks 🙂 Yeah, I was really lucky the timing worked out!

  11. Very, very impressive. As a westerner, it makes me think whether I’m missing out on a mental state of mind. Not to do the above, but still…

  12. Whoa…didn’t know you were still reading! Nice to see you around 🙂

  13. why did I read despite the warning?? wow, how did you handle it al???

  14. >>how did you handle it al???

    Simple: I refrained from participating 😆

  15. (…which may sound obvious, but..)

    A few foreigners join the procession and even participate in acts of selfmortification but, like firewalking, these rituals are best left to the faithful – every year doctors treat dozens of poorly prepared devotees for skin lacerations or exhaustion after the rigours of Thaipusam.

  16. very true! Now it will be a huge surprise next time to see what I do……..???

  17. Haha…firewalker? 😛

  18. Psh, call me when they move on to nipple piercings, and then I’ll care. 😛

  19. Hahahahaha you and your nipples 😛

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