Thaipusam is an annual festival that occurs in the Hindu month of Thai (January/ February). A day of penance and thanksgiving, it features devotees paying homage to Lord Subramaniam by piercing their bodies, cheeks and tongues with sharp skewers and hooks weighted down with oranges.
Thaipusam is not for the faint of heart and Western visitors are sometimes shocked at the self-flagellation that takes place. The festival begins with an eight-hour procession that starts out in the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur and culminates with priests and devotees climbing the 272 steps to Cave Temple at the top of Batu Caves.
Kavadis at Thaipusam
As devotes ascend the steps to the Temple Cave, they perform prayers and carry a variety of burdens, ranging from pitchers of milk in paal kudam (milk pots) connected to the skin by hooks to vel kavadi – cages of spikes that pierce the skin, decorated with peacock feathers and bearing the image of Lord Subramaniam. Also known as kavadis these ‘burdens’ can measure up to six feet-high and weigh up to 200lbs; participants claim to enter a trance that renders them unable to feel pain of the body piercings or to even bleed. Fire walking is also practiced and kavadi carriers try to outdo each other in the severity of his ‘torture’.
Thaipusam - For The Truly Faithful
Only men are allowed to carry kavadis as women are not allowed to bear their bodies in order to be pierced. A month before the celebration, men who wish to be pierced and carry kavadis must go through a cleansing ritual, a vegetarian diet and abstain from ‘worldly pleasures’ – including sex and sleep on a hard floor. The body piercing may seem like a seemingly masochistic act, but in truth it is done in response to fulfilment of answered prayers. It is good to note that though a kavadi carrier can have as many as 100 spears piercing his flesh, he only loses a small amount of blood. Later the wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.
Thaipusam at Batu Caves
Thaipusam is greeted with the most gusto at the Batu Caves (a limestone network of 400 million-year-old caverns with temples built in them) just outside KL. Featuring a 100ft golden statue of Lord Subramaniam, the festival attracts up to 1.5 million devotees each year. Thaipusam festivals are also held in Melaka and Penang (the Nattukotai Chettiar Temple) though on a smaller scale, and Singapore (Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple).