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...
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.
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.
This suffering is seen as a way to pay back the "debts" owed to lord Murugan.
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.
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.
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.
I can only imagine how painful it must be to stay locked in this position, carrying these heavy milk pots for hours and hours...
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.
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.
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...
Women & Children Join The Procession
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Continued below...but I do hope you'll consider following along with me)
What an honor to be a guest, and witness such intense cultural traditions.
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:
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
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