Thaipusam Devotees: Missionaries or Masochists?

Article by: unknown author

Thu January 31, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Batu_BacksEach of us carries a different burden on our backs

As seen on AFAR

In the mid-80′s, I first got a flavor of this festival when the documentary, “Dances Sacred & Profane” launched. This film depicted how various devotees around the globe, not just at Thaipusam, transcended their earthly realm by torturing their body for the sake of a higher cause. Religious scholar Huston Smith suggests we’re all on “a pilgrim’s journey to find the truth,” but many of us have less painful ways of getting there.

Batu_DurianFruitBackDevotee with durian fruit attached to his back

The Kuala Lumpur festival is definitely on the ascension as this 1964 video shows you that this was a smaller affair back then. Beware that this footage shows just how the piercings are accomplished – it’s a little intense.

 And, the fabulous anthropological treatise “Pierced by Murugan’s Lance” by Elizabeth Fuller Collins gives you a good historical sense of how this festival has grown over the years.

Batu_DevoteeBack2These back hooks were attached by ropes to a man who was being pulled along by this devotee

The carriers of the kavadi (the decorated wooden frames that pierce the bodies of those carrying them) have prepared themselves spiritually by eating a limited vegetarian diet for a month in advance and fasting in the last couple of days as well as being celibate the whole time. Between their diet, the heat, the 15-kilometer walk barefoot from Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves, and the religious decoration they’re carrying, these devotees are nearly in a trance when they arrive at the bottom of the hill to climb the 272 stairs.

Batu_Back3People placing hooks on a devotee’s body

Why do they go to this extreme? I guess these devoted Hindus could ask the same question of those Americans who commute three hours each day in order to afford a gargantuan ranch home in a gated suburb. That’s a different form of daily torture. These devotees only do this once a year and they do it primarily because it’s a means of showing their commitment to overcome an obstacle or honor a vow. Soon after the event, the wounds to the body and face from piercings are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring. So, while it may be a little gory in the moment, the devotees believe the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.