Advertisement

A Hindu Tamil Practice Where Believers Prove Their Faith Through Piercings

At first glance, the Thaipusam festival might seem more like a body modification convention than religious practice.

by Sharon Shum; photos by Taufiq Jaafar
01 February 2019, 6:00am

A kavadi bearer getting his tongue pierced so that he will stay silent focused. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.

Thaipusam is a full-moon thanksgiving festival celebrated by Hindu Tamil diaspora around the world to worship Lord Murugan, a six-faced god of war and victory.

On the day of the festival, devotees perform kavadi attam – which literally translates to “burden dance” – to symbolize one’s gracious acceptance of life’s hardships and indebtedness to god. In Singapore, this takes the form of a three to four-hour walk between two temples through the downtown city area. Elsewhere, this may even be a multi-day pilgrimage.

For many devotees, this is a culmination of 48 days of asceticism which involves fasting, following a strict diet of vegetarian or fruits and milk only, sexual abstinence, and constant prayer. These practices purify the body, and in turn, the mind, to prepare them for what is to follow.

Generally, there are three levels of kavadi-bearing difficulty. Regular practitioners of all ages carry pots of milk as offerings or the more contemporary carton of milk equivalent. Take a step further and believers then transition to bearing a wooden pole on their shoulders, which support an arch decorated with peacock feathers, orange flowers and pictures of deities.

Spike kavadi bearer
Sharp spikes are pierced into the body of the kavadi bearer to support a steel altar. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.

Then, the third level. For the true test of resilience, believers must be willing to accept feats more akin to body modification than religious practice. Popular choices include spike kavadis mounted on one’s body by 108 sharpened rods, or chariot kavadis dragged along on wheels from large hooks and chains attached to one’s back. These large steel altars typically weigh 20 to 30 kilograms.

At this stage, it’s pretty common to also have multiple piercings through the skin, tongue and cheeks. Fire walking is optional.

Such acts may seem severe and even shocking, but the festival is a lively and communal affair on a backdrop of blaring music, pulsating drums and chanting. Spike and chariot kavadi bearers dance and spin in circles along the procession with an unexpected grace. Entourages of friends and family follow along, armed with hydration and moral support.

It is said that kavadi bearers reach a trance-like meditative state – and with their minds free, they feel no pain. Most claim that contrary to popular belief, their wounds do not bleed and leave no scars.

At the end of the walk, families help systematically tear down the elaborate kavadis, removing the piercings and smearing wounds with ash. Then everyone snacks on panchamrita, a sweet mixture of five foods said to be a favorite of the gods.

Here are more photos of kavadi bearers from the Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore.

Thaipusam in Singapore
Singapore's shophouses and commercial buildings make an unlikely backdrop for the Thaipusam celebrations. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
1548997741154-4
Prayers and offerings are the most important step of the preparations for a kavadi bearer. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
Thaipusam spike kavadi bearer piercing
Piercing the devotee is a professional task handled by friends and family. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
old spike kavadi bearer
An older devotee waits in the temple for the rest of his kavadi to be set up. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
spike kavadi on the streets of Singapore
Joining the Thaipusam procession is a spiritual commitment and understanding of one's indebtedness to god. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
kavadi bearer resting
Concerned loved ones crowd around as a kavadi bearer takes a break. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
thaipusam family removing spikes
Families help to remove and pack the spikes at the end of the procession. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.
kavadi bearer at the end of the procession
Crowds look on as a calm believer finishes his devotional practice. Photo by Taufiq Jaafar.