Celebrated mostly by Tamil Indian populations, Thaipusam commemorates the Hindu god of war Murugan’s vanquishing of evil demons with the spear given to him by his mother Parvati. Malaysia hosts some the biggest Thaipusam celebrations in the world, it being the biggest Hindu festival of the year here. In Penang, the festival begins with a chariot procession from Georgetown’s Little India to the Waterfall Temple seven kilometers away. Devotees partake in coconut smashing sessions along the chariot’s route, an act that symbolizes both the breaking of one’s ego to reveal innner purity and the destruction of obstacles to forge a clearer path in hopes of good luck for the coming year. As bulldozers and individuals armed with big brooms clear the street after each big coconut smashing to make a path for the chariot, the procession takes about twelve hours.
The next day, the most serious of devotees fulfill their vows to bear burdens in thanks for prayers answered by Murugan through seemingly painful displays including piercing their tongues with skewers (called vets), bearing hooks pierced in rows down their backs and carrying heavy homemade frames sometimes attached to their bodies with spikes. These frames are the most demanding of devotees’ kavadi, which translates to “sacrifice with every step.” While these acts seem excruciating — we watched one man strain forward while one of his supporters yanked back with all his strength the ropes attached to the hooks in his back, pulling his skin away from his body in fleshy triangles as blood dripped down — they are said to cause the devotees to enter crazed trances that dull the pain. While I didn’t climb the 500 steps to witness the temple rituals (having accidentally left my robe to cover my shoulders back at the hostel), one friend reported seeing a man faint as the hooks were pulled out of his skin. Despite all of this apparent suffering, Thaipusam is at its core a festive celebration of gratitude, the culmination of weeks of spiritual preparation and abstinence by devotees.