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Pierced Devotees At Thaipusam

Pierced Devotees At Thaipusam

Year: 2012, Month: February

Malaysia > Selangor > Kuala Lumpur

I was very fortunate to realise that my winter break in Kuala Lumpur coincided with the colourful Thaipusam festival: a Hindu celebration by the Tamil community that falls on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February). Thaipusam, who's name is derived from 'Thai', the month name and 'Pusam', a star that is at its highest point during this period, is a festival that commemorates the occasion when the goddess Parvati gave Lord Murugan, the God of the Tamils, a spear so that he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam, a tormentor of all the good souls of the universe. In Kuala Lumpur on the day of the festival, devotees of all ages will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of the city to the Batu Caves, a natural rock formation and Hindu pilgrimage site some 15 kilometres to the north. During the journey, which can last over 8 hours, they take part in various acts of devotion, notably involving the carrying of various types of burdens, collectively known as Kavadi.

For some pilgrims this ceremonial burden may mean the carrying of large and unwieldy affairs of metal cages and chains on the shoulders, decorated with flowers, peacock feathers, and religious symbols. For others, though, Lord Murugan's spear is commemorated in a most gory fashion as the more extreme of pilgrims practise the mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue, or cheeks with skewers to gain religious merit. Alternatively, hooks are stuck into the flesh of a pilgrim's back. Weights such as fruit, flowers, small cans of milk, sacred Tulsi leaves, or bells may be attached to the hooks. In the most extreme of cases, the hooks are fastened to ropes or chains and tensioned by another pilgrim walking behind, or used to pull a small cart decorated as a Hindu shrine. This photograph shows two such instances of this mortification: on the left a man has his back covered with hooks, each of which support a small covered metal jug of milk, whilst on the right, a devotee has his back pierced by many large hooks that are tensioned by the ropes pulled by a man behind him. In the distance can be seen the huge 43m golden statue of Lord Murugan, and to the left of him a steady stream of ant-like pilgrims and devotees, climbing the final 272 steps to the caves at the top and journey's end for this year's devotions.

If you are in the Kuala Lumpur area at the right time of year, and have a chance to experience the Thaipusam Festival, then such a chance should not be missed. Roads are closed, traffic is stopped, and a festival air of excitement fills the streets. The pilgrims and devotees are accompanied by their supporters to help clear the way through the dense crowds, and often have their own bands of musicians to provide encouragement. Babies are presented to the pilgrims for dedication and will be anointed with ceremonial ash or given holy prasad sweets. Though very crowded, the Thaipusam Festival is a happy occasion with a friendly and good humoured crowd. You can see more of my photos of this event on the Thaipusam Festival page. Once I have the time to select and process them, there will be many more photos to join the current ones.

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