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.
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.