The real Thaipusam

A seasoned kavadi bearer unravels the myths and taboos behind Hinduism's most confounding festival
batu caves
By Surekha Ragavan |
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Thousands rise in the dewy hours of daybreak with a conscious resolution – to have their flesh pinched, tugged and skewered, their shoulders groaning beneath the weight of 30kg kavadi structures. This is Thaipusam, a bewildering Hindu festival that excites, confuses and tires over a million devotees and spectators every year. 

Lord Murugan is the reason for Thaipusam, the son of creator Lord Shiva. Literally conjoining thai (month) and pusam (star), the January/February period marks the most auspicious timing for Lord Murugan devotees. Observers throng the famous Lord Murugan shrine, Batu Caves, to present offerings, pray, or simply revel in the carnival-like atmosphere. But it’s the devotees’ peculiar piercings and virile strength to perform the unthinkable that draw people in. Whenever did the concept of extreme pain become affiliated with holiness? The answer: It isn’t. 

Outside of those familiar with the genesis of Thaipusam and the kavadi, the theory of ‘suffering’ for God is often perceived as archaic if not self-punishing. Vijiandran Kassey (Vijay), a lawyer who has carried the kavadi every year since 1989, refutes this suffering. He does it for sadhana – spiritual practices carried out to conquer ego, anger, lust, greed and hatred. Carrying the kavadi helps him surrender these ‘sins’, something he has learnt to achieve year after year. 

Not everyone carries the kavadi for this primal yearning for goodness, or the supposed purification of the soul. ‘Some people do it if they make a vow. Some of them want their business to prosper, or they want a child,’ Vijay says. 

'Whenever did the concept of extreme pain become affiliated with holiness? The answer: It isn’t'

Unlike most things that glitter, Thaipusam isn’t a fleeting affair. Devotees exercise abstinence 48 days leading up to the festival, fending off all manner of luxury, embellish and desire. ‘I feel my realisation becoming clearer. I learn to live as a hermit, or in simplicity. The rituals that we go through enhance our spiritual growth,’ Vijay says. Vegetarianism is mandatory during this period. ‘We believe that animals have souls. So why kill a soul to feed our stomachs?’ Vijay laments, after which he laughs and rather morbidly quotes Bernard Shaw: ‘I do not want to make my stomach a graveyard of dead animals’. 

On top of that, a light diet (without seconds) is practised to avoid gluttony. Celibacy and refraining from alcohol, smoking, vulgarity or even trips to the movies are some of the things devotees focus on. ‘We can’t even shave. Because we can’t worry about how the body looks. There’s no room for grooming when you’re taking care of the soul,’ Vijay adds. In short, everything that beautifies or entertains must be stripped off the routine.

On top of fasting, devotees sleep on the floor without pillows on all 48 days, and wake before sunrise for meditation and chants. If all this sounds drastically medieval, devotees view it differently. ‘Kavadi is something to be enjoyed. It’s not an occasion when we say, “When will it be over?” There’s no point forcing yourself to do it.’ Vijay says. ‘It is a form of sacrifice but the bearer must be happy doing it.’ For most Lord Murugan worhsippers, it’s a time of year where happiness arrives in abundance. ‘I look forward to this period every year,’ Vijay smiles. ‘It’s a form of enjoyment, your body becomes light, and you’re so happy. It’s an indescribable feeling of bliss.

On the morning of the festival itself, devotees gather in the Batu Caves Indian Settlement before heading to the temple compound. Once they take their baths and have holy ash smeared on their foreheads, the mystic subconscious state of trance takes over. ‘At first, your movements are uncontrollable,’ Vijay says. ‘Some people dance even better than trained dancers because the reflexes are really quick’. In Vijay’s instance, his body becomes light and he often springs off the ground with a physical capacity he wouldn’t otherwise achieve in a conscious state.

Next comes the graphic act of spearing the cheeks, back, lips or even forehead with veils and hooks. The person tasked to pierce the devotees must also be ‘pure’, and devotees neither feel pain nor bleed. ‘The endurance you have in a trance is remarkable,’ Vijay says. ‘When you close your eyes, you can see images of God or sometimes images of those in your lives who have passed away’. Most coherently, Vijay describes the feeling as ecstatic, a swaying drugless high that seems difficult to snap out of. This scene alone is worthy of tourists and spectators crowding Batu Caves, cameras slung around their necks. Kavadi bearers dance, spin and chant in a hypnotic spectacle of colour and drums, usually spurring those standing by to join in. Sometimes, they step on hot, smoking ash, unmindful of the heat and bearing no scar of it. 

Carrying heavy kavadis up the Batu Caves’ 272 steps never tires the bearers but all feeling is restored when the trance is switched off at the end of the ritual. The process is simpler this time – holy ash is once again applied on the forehead before a priest chants prayers. As soon as consciousness is regained, devotees sometimes collapse from the sheer weight, but strength seeps in with time. 

Kavadi bearers don’t always have it painless. Sometimes, accusations and judgmental jeers are thrown at them, with the act of body piercing being connoted as ‘hooliganism’ or ‘barbaric’. ‘Some people say we can just meditate and they don’t see the point of harming our bodies,’ Vijay points out. ‘But we enjoy it. We’re just congressing spiritually. I don’t see the harm if we’re not hurting anyone else. Maybe they think it’s black magic, or we’re using some kind of cultish medium. But we don’t use anything like that, it’s all completely natural.’ 

Despite the heavy reliance on the love of a Hindu deity, Thaipusam seemingly transcends religion. It’s not shocking to see Chinese and Caucasian Christians or Buddhists carrying the kavadi, flailing and spinning in a trance with just a white cloth tied around their waists. It’s an inexplicable occurrence, but Vijay explains that some people feel a sense of belonging in Batu Caves, or some just use the opportunity to have their transitory wishes granted. Whether insensible, outmoded, stimulating or amusing, Thaipusam is that festival that doesn’t care what you think about it. It will dance to no end and have you watch.

Thaipusam falls on Wed Jan 31 this year. To learn more about navigating your way around Batu Caves, read our insider's guide to Thaipusam.

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