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Thaipusam: A Deeply Religious Flesh-Piercing Festival in Singapore

Thaipusam Festival Photos - Little India, Singapore - Sony A7 ii © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Thaipusam Festival Photos - Little India, Singapore - January, 2018
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Legend states that the Hindu mother goddess gave a spear to Murugan, the god of war. With this spear, she helped him destroy an evil demon.

 

Once a year on the full moon, Tamil Hindus around the world commemorate this during the fascinating Thaipusam Festival. They do so by fasting for 48 hours, and carrying heavy pots of milk on their heads. Others, incredibly, by “spearing” their own skin.

 

Some even wear heavy, elaborate metal cages that are literally “fish hooked” and chained into their bodies - in up to HUNDREDS of places. Here are more photos of these fascinating rituals...

 


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  Words & Photos By Nathan Allen


Nighttime Festival Photos

Singapore's procession starts quite late on the eve of the full moon.  Devotees gather at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in "Little India". The first group of worshipers depart carry pots of milk or offerings (paal kudam) on their heads.

 

Elderly man dressed in white @ Thaipusam Festival -  Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Sharply dessed worshipper near Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple - Sony A7ii - f1.8 - 85mm

For many, this is where the (intentional) suffering begins. Men and women stand and walk in this position for many hours. Friends and relatives join them on the festival route (3kms - 5kms), to offer not just moral support, but physical support as well. As you can see, it's quite exhausting.

 

Exhausted kavadi attam man and support team @ Thaipusam Festival - Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
On the verge of collapse, carrying his milk pot - Sony A7 ii - 85mm @ f1.8

This suffering is seen as a way to pay back the "debts" owed to lord Murugan.

 

Men wearing yellow flower garlands during the procession @ Thaipusam Festival -  Singapore - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Cheery attendees wearing flower garlands

 

However, not everybody seemed to be suffering. Many devotees appeared to be in good spirits, laughing and visiting with each other along the way. Perhaps they were just getting started on the route, and exhaustion hadn't set in yet.

 

Man carrying simple kavadi with pierced tongue and cheeks -  Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Man carrying a relatively small kavadi along the route

This man is carrying a "kavadi", a colorful, intricate cage that rests on (or all around) you. He is burdening himself with this weight to assist in the healing of a loved one...or perhaps to repay his own spiritual debts.

 

This seems to be a simple, unattached kavadi. As you'll see later, others are much larger, and are often hooked directly into the flesh.

 

Devotees with Paal kudam milk pots @ Thaipusam Festival -  Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Group with their milk pot offerings waiting at traffic intersection

The devotees continue down Serangoon Road until they get backed up waiting to cross Bukit Timah and head downtown. This was a great place to photograph the group as a whole.

 

Smiling man along the festival route @ Thaipusam Festival -  Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
A smiling face in a sea of solemnity

I can only imagine how painful it must be to stay locked in this position, carrying these heavy milk pots for hours and hours...

 

Arms raised to the milk pots in unison @ Thaipusam Festival -  Little India, Singapore - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Love how this "balancing act" created a pattern of sorts

Kavadi Photos in Daylight

The attendees walk through the early morning, and the procession ends at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road. I opted to go home and rest before returning the next day for more photos.

 

I returned the next morning to a beautiful, but oppressively warm day.

 

Here you can see a kavadi "cage" that is pierced directly into the skin of this worshiper. Countless chains are "fish hooked" into his chest, and decorative spikes have been pierced through his tongue and cheeks.

 

Pierced man with kavadi burden hooked and chained to his body @ Thaipusam Festival - Singapore - Sony A7 ii, f1.8 85mm © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Pierced tongue, cheeks, and chest - carrying the burden of a kavadi - Sony A7ii - f1.8 - 85mm

I believe even his ears are chained to the kavadi poles on his sides.

 

The Kavadi Attam "Burden Dance"

As if this burden wasn't enough to bear already, these men stop along the procession route and dance under the weight of their chained bondage. The soft, traditional voices being played through the speakers are cut, and replaced with thunderous, energetic drumming and singing.

 

Crowd clapping for man doing kavadi attam dance @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3X @ 24mm - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Kavadi Attam "burden dance" - for the participants and spectators - Canon G3X

 

Again, the route is 3km - 5kms, depending on the festival location. In the harsh tropical sun, it's downright grueling.

 

However, it is also a colorful, lively affair...the crowd claps and sings along, taking photos and video.  Amazingly, the performers almost seem to enjoy it...

 

Almost.

 

Women & Children Join The Procession

Woman with pierced tongue and skewer through cheeks @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3X Zoom - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
The Face of Determination - Canon G3X

Men aren't the only ones showing their strength and courage. I noted hundreds of women carrying milk pots along the route, and quite a few with pierced tongues and cheeks as well. The woman above even appears to have a pierced forehead...

 

Tamil boy carrying milk pot @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3X @ Zoom - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Tamil boy with milk pot spilling over en route

 

While there were many children simply walking alongside their parents, a few went the extra mile and carried a burden for themselves. I think they must be 18 or 21 years old to take part in the piercing, however.

 

 

This is where the photos get a bit graphic. These are not just fishing hooks - they are massive, industrial-grade meat hooks, pierced and looped through the skin of the back. For what I assume is continual suffering, they are attached to ropes, and kept taught during the entirety of the festival.

 

Man being pulled with ropes hooked to his back flesh @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3X @ 24mm - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
I imagine this is a supportive wife helping her husband push past the pain...

It was quite surreal to see so many smiles amidst the suffering. Since they were out in public, part of me wondered if attendees are encouraged to "soften" things a bit by smiling for tourists when they see them. It would make sense, because some uninformed tourists might mistake a festival that brings people closer to God for one of pure torture instead.

 

Yes, this is religious devotion at its most intense.

 

Large hooks pierced through the skin of bleeding man's back @ Thaipusam Festival -  Sony A7 ii - f1.8 - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Mortification of the flesh, through ropes hooked into the back- Sony A7 ii - f1.8

This is the front view of the man with hooks in his back - carrying on a conversation like it's just a normal day...astonishing.

 

Colorful shrine and worshippers near Sri Thendayuthapani Temple  @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3X Zoom - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Shrine and devotees near Sri Thendayuthapani Temple - Canon G3X

This group was accompanied by a large chariot, which blesses the crowds' offering plates as it passes by. These plates are filled with fruits and sweets.

 

Offering plate with sweets and fruit  @ Thaipusam Festival -  Sony A7 ii - f1.8 85mm  - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Participant With Offering Plate - Sony A7 ii - f1.8 85mm

Perhaps the heat and exhaustion is just too much for some. Even in a "resting" position, the ropes are pulled tight to continue the devotion.

 

A man in pierced bondage, collapsed in exhaustion  @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3x Zoom - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Man "Resting" in bondage - with a spear through his cheeks - Canon G3X

Those without a "rope puller" often attach heavy fruits to their hooks - the weight adding to the pain and suffering. Presumably this is for more blessings / attention from lord Murugan.

 

Green lime fruits hooked and pierced into the skin of a worshipper's back @ Thaipusam Festival -  Canon G3x Zoom - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Heavy fruits hanging from hooks in a man's back - Canon G3x

 

(Continued below...but I do hope you'll consider following along with me)


Photographer Nathan Allen Bio via @idreamedofthis


What an honor to be a guest, and witness such intense cultural traditions.

 

Kavadi details with symbols, flowers, beads and chains @ Thaipusam Festival -  Sony A7 ii - f1.8 85mm - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
Closeup of Elaborate Kavadi Designs - Sony A7 ii - f1.8 85mm

More Info About Thaipusam

 

Of course, Tamil people originated from the state of Tamil Nadu, India, so the Thaipusam Festival is not just restricted to Singapore...it takes place anywhere there is a sizeable Tamil Hindu population.

 

I learned that in Tamil, "Thai" means month, and "pusam" means star. The festival always takes place during the full moon in the month of Thai, which falls in January / February.

 

Photography is permitted, assuming you are respectful and avoid interrupting the procession.

 


Where to Stay

Little India is actually a great place to find more affordable hotels in Singapore. There is a colorful "backpackers district" there, but of course, Singapore has options at all price points. If you're looking for an modern, extravagant hotel, you can find that as well. Check out Booking.com:

 

Booking.com

Despite the (seemingly) brutal ritual, the participants and organisers were all in great spirits. They were very kind to me (and all guests), offering free water, juice, and snacks. I have to give it up to the police as well...it must be difficult running such a massive, cultural  festival through the heart of gleaming downtown Singapore, and on a workday no less.

 

It was masterfully done, and a joy to attend.

 

To those who still say Singapore has no culture, I offer this post...and many more to come:) This is part of the reason I love this country so much. You can simply walk through the city - and leave feeling like you've traveled the world.

 

 

- Nathan Allen

www.idreamedofthis.com

 

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