January is a time for retribution in Malaysia and Singapore as Indian communities run amok in the name of Lord Murugan and usher in an orgy of colours, Bollywood tunes and self-mutilating devotion
By Marco Ferrarese
Squatting on the ground, a group of Indian men resemble mad tailors as they go to work on the back of another believer. They frantically manoeuvre hooks as he slouches face down on the concrete, his dilated eyes fixed somewhere between heaven and hell. Each and every hook is inserted carefully under the skin before being massaged with coconut oil and sacred ashes. In the end, two neat vertical rows of metallic rings bind ropes under the shoulder blades, reaching down to the lower back.
“Vel Vel! Vel Vel!” – the Tamil word for spear – is the mantra that accompanies a multitude of thumping fists, raised towards the sky, as the last hook penetrates the skin. It is time for this human string-puppet to rise. Ceremonial joss sticks jammed into small coconuts consecrate the moment. As the man walks, a tormentor pulls the ropes from behind, creating menacing wings of flesh, twine and metal. “He is my brother,” says the persecutor-in-chief of this twisted angel, “and he desperately needs a good job. It is up to the mercy of Lord Murugan now.”
Thaipusam – a combination of ‘Thai’, the Tamil month corresponding to January, and ‘Pusam’, the star that reaches its highest point during the celebration – is the name of this festival, which takes place at the end of January and sees the Indian community take to the streets of Malaysia and Singapore for two days of collective hysteria.
The festival remembers the legendary gift given by the Hindu goddess Parvati – a magic spear to crush the demon Soorapadam – to Lord Murugan, a Hindu God and son of Shiva. Devotees see Thaipusam as the perfect opportunity to give thanks to, or beg the mercy of, Murugan by offering kavadi, a form of penance that ranges from holding a pot full of milk over the head to the more extreme forms of body mutilation.
“It all depends on what you want to ask for: if your son is seriously ill, lugging the pot over your head will not impress Murugan too much,” explains Shaktivel, a devotee who tosses cold water over his head to purify himself before entering the small Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple on Penang island. As he disappears inside, a woman with a spike piercing her cheeks sways out, her face beaded with sweat. A second prong nails her tongue against her lips. “That is Murugan’s spear, [it] forces them not to talk and constantly think of him,” explains one of the festival’s high priests.
The procession has flooded the Hindu temples of Penang since the early hours of the morning. A wave of throbbing devotees swings speechless in the adjoining car park, faces and bodies pierced by Murugan’s spears, waiting for the long march to start. A few are rounded up in front of carts resplendent with colourful statues of Indian gods, the ropes hanging from their backs ready to pull in an exercise of oxen-like dedication.
Thaipusam is not only performed by men and a handful of brave women: mingling with the crowd, several groups of teenagers sit on stools by the roadside, their pubescent cheeks impaled by smaller metal sticks. “If Amudhan could talk, he would tell you that he desperately needs to pass the exams at the end of this semester,” explains his proud mother. “May Lord Murugan help us with that.”
Surrounded by family members, curious onlookers and an increasing number of tourists hunting the perfect shot, devotees will walk for five to ten kilometres to their ultimate destinations, which are scattered across the Malay peninsula: the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur; the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple on the island of Penang; or the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Singapore’s Tank Road. Only upon reaching these shrines will they be liberated from their kavadis; their wishes stamped with Murugan’s seal of approval.
The local community has quickly learnt how to turn this carnival into a cash-cow. All sorts of companies sponsor giant speakers that blast Bollywood music throughout the day, and some businesses also bestow free food and drinks upon the numerous guests. “It is all part of the show. Thousands of people come here to dance, celebrate and support the march… we just cannot neglect such a promotional opportunity,” explains Ramasamy, an employee of Penang-based Fairchild Semiconductors, as he hands out cold drinks to the masses.
Lord Murugan would likely disapprove of the corporate demons infiltrating his big day, yet the large numbers of disciples who choose to maim their bodies in his name would doubtless eulogise their God’s equally generous hand.