Thaipusam - A Hindu Festival
Singapore has a substantial Hindu community. About 6% of the 3 million people in Singapore are Hindu.
The Hindu people are intense about their religion, and take some extraordinary measures to display their devotion.
A good example is the Thaipusam festival.
Thaipusam is the feast for the son of Shiva, Lord Subramaniam. It's celebrated annually, in January or February. In 1998, Thaipusam fell on February 10th.
Lord Subramaniam is the universal granter of wishes.
All those who wish to ask for a future favor, fulfill a vow in return for a granted favor, or to repent for past sins will participate in this festival (basically, all Hindus fall in one of these groups).
'Participate' is a fairly weak verb, for what many people do.
Everyone walks 3 kilometers from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to Chettiar Hindu Temple, carrying offerings to Lord Subramaniam. Many raised the stakes by entering a trance, and piercing their bodies with skewers.
Kevin and I took a taxi to Little India at 6:30 a.m. and stepped into the middle of a long procession of devotees. On the way up the street, we saw a man hobbling along.
"That guy's got a problem," I said.
"Yeah, he's got a problem, all right," Kevin replied. "His shoes are made of nails!"
Sure enough, his shoes were made of nails. Each shoe had a wooden base, with about 60 to 100 nails sticking up out of the base. The nails look old and rusty. Ouch.
Kevin and I passed the nailman, and followed the procession to Chettiar Hindu Temple. There we found hundreds of people waiting to enter the temple with their offerings. We found a spot on the temple steps, just as the sun was rising, and watched the participants.
Each person showed devotion in a different manner. We saw a lot of shaved heads and quite a number of pierced tongues and cheeks. Some men hung fruit from their flesh with fish hooks, giving the effect of a human Christmas tree.
In lesser numbers, we saw trance dancers, swaying to the beat of musicians in religious ecstasy. At one point, screams emerged from the temple entrance and we turned to see a man submitting himself to a belt whipping.
His partner then brought out a four inch thick rope, to increase the pain (and devotion). Temple officials quickly interrupted that effort. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, I guess.
One woman did not have the strength to complete her journey. Her family was there to help. They held her arms up. They held her body up. They moved her legs, step by step, for her. They wiped away her tears, and spoke to her reassuringly. It was painful to watch, and reminded us of how serious this festival is.
Then came the Kavadi carriers.
This man is one of many who carry the kavadi, a large offering to Lord Subramaniam.
The kavadi is heavy, and it's attached to his flesh.
If you're not squeamish (and don't mind loading a 120K picture), I will show you a close-up of how these rods are secured to the body.
Of course, not all Hindus find it necessary to go to these extremes. Many are content with a simple offering from the heart. As our friend Ganesan explained to us, "Everyone has their own way to pray."
A Simple Offering
Still, it was an extraordinary event. It's not simply tradition or ritual, like so many religious ceremonies I've seen. This was an intense demonstration of belief and devotion.
It was a public event, attended by thousands, yet it appeared that every individual was alone at some point, even amidst the throngs, communicating with their god.
Glimpses of these personal moments sometimes made Kevin and me uncomfortable, as though we were intruding, but, these were, of course, the moments that stick with us.
For the next two days, we would look at each other, and still not believing everything we had seen, shake our heads.
At one point, I had said, "It's amazing, that we could see all this, and be back in an air-conditioned office, doing high tech work, by nine a.m."
I was commenting on the age old juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.
But I was wrong.
The amazing part isn't that WE were back in our offices that morning. The amazing thing is that THEY would be back in air-conditioned offices, doing high tech work the next day.
The juxtaposition has been internalized. My workmates in Singapore practice new-age science and technology, then return home and practice centuries-old customs and beliefs.
Such is this new East/West world.
Wisdom to be taught. Lessons to be learned. Experiences to be shared.