A Piercing, Memorable Experience
If you plan to go to Thaipusam, which I wholeheartedly recommend, prepare to have your mind utterly blown. And prepare to dance. And prepare your friends for the fact that you’re going to firehose a billion brilliant photos at them via Facebook, Instagram, email, telepathically and every other imaginable way.
Thaipusam is a Tamil-Hindu festival that commemorates when the goddess Parvati gave her son, Lord Murugan, a spear so he could destroy an evil demon. Some followers get pierced with giant hooks or spears to show their devotion, or to thank the deities for fulfilling a wish, and then walk up to the main temple to give offerings. Coconuts are broken in the street to cleanse the path for devotees, and you’ll see many Hindus carrying pots of milk on their heads to take up to the temple, and others carrying two-story-high, colorful kavatis on their shoulders. For this eye-popping festival, more than a million people gather at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lampur and near the Waterfall Hill Temple in Penang, and everyone is welcome.
In Penang, the event starts at around 4am when devotees start to “get poked” behind the small temple at the intersection of Jalan Utama and Gottleib, and in front of the Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple off Lorong Kulit. The piercings happen until about 7-8am or so, and the festivities last until midnight.
Here’s a video I put together to show you a bit of what Thaipusam is like:
The Thaipusam Experience
Here’s my favorite Thaipusam experience. I arrive at Sri Muthu Mariamman at 4:30am to catch as much of the festival possible. Much to my excitement, a wonderfully kind family welcomes me to watch their son being pierced and invites me to join their procession to the temple. (The warmth and friendliness of Penang’s people never ceases to amaze me.)
In a trace-like state brought on by prayer, he lies facedown on the ground. An ash mix is applied to his back to prevent bleeding. With drums beating loudly, and friends and family tightly gathered around, the atmosphere is charged and spellbinding. Each time a giant, curved hook penetrates his flesh, all his relatives and friends chant to the gods to help him stay in his trance. Incredibly, he doesn’t appear to be in any pain at all and there is not one drop of blood. After dozens of hooks are firmly embedded in his skin, ropes are attached to each and then gathered firmly around the waist of his friend. Leaning forward, he then pulls his friend toward the temple by the metal tethered to his flesh.
“Oh God, how could you watch that? My stomach would be doing flips!” my friends say in response to my Facebook photos. Huh, that’s a good point – why am I not bent over and “yawning in technicolor” at my shoes at the sight of him getting a spear pushed through his cheeks and tongue? It’s probably because there’s an absence of blood and pain, so it isn’t gory. Plus, the drumming, chanting, and the scent of jasmine garlands that decorate peoples’ hair
has carried my head to an other-worldly place. It almost feels like a dream, especially since it’s now five in the morning and I should be asleep.
With all the spears in place, we begin the walk to the Waterfall Hill Temple via Jalan Utama. The street is lined with big colorful stalls and the women are out in the avenue in their finest jewel-toned silk saris and kurtas. The intoxicating scent of masala curls around us and draws us toward the giant cauldrons of free curry being ladled out to all who are hungry. Then the thump of Thaipusam devotional music compels our feet to move with the hypnotic rhythm as revelers pull us in to dance with them in the street. Once we’re all sweaty, laughing and smiling, we’re underway again. Soon we’re among dozens of others who are walking on bed-of-nail shoes, yellow-clothed devotees dripping with coconut water, drummers, and men with silver pots of milk hooked to every available piece of skin on their chests, arms and back. At the foot of the Waterfall Temple’s steps, I leave them to sit on the sidelines and watch the ever-growing stream of worshipers pass until the morning sun sets the colors of their clothes aglow…and practically lights my hair on fire.
After a long nap back at home and an impossible attempt to absorb all I’ve seen, some friends and I returned to Jalan Utama at 7pm to catch the evening festivities. The kavatis have doubled in height, the piercings have become more elaborate and fierce, the blue and pink florescent lights on the chariots blink fast as if they’re wondering if they’re really seeing all this too. The music is louder, the earrings more sparkly, people dance wildly and with greater abandon, and the crowd has grown so large that people are pressed shoulder to sweaty shoulder. As a steaming, glowing, wide-load chariot passes, the revelers squish even closer together and I have to duck several times to avoid being whacked in the head by a spinning kavati. My laughter is absorbed by the crowd and the night.
A couple hours later, when the music pauses between songs, I breathe in and feel the heavy weight of exhaustion and full-on sensory overload press down on my head. With reluctance, I wade through the thickening crowd toward home, realizing that this is one of the most incredible experiences of my life. My mind is officially blown.
Until next year, Thaipusam. Thank you, Penang!
When: During the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai (if you don’t have your Hindu calendar handy, that’s sometime in January or February. The date changes every year.) From 4am – midnight
Where: the main celebrations are in Penang on Jalan Utama to the Waterfall Hill Temple; also in Kuala Lampur at the Batu Caves. In Penang, to see the piercings, head out before sunrise to the Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple or to the small temple at the corner of Jalan Utama and Gottleib.
Parking: In Penang, traffic and parking are a nightmare anywhere between Gottleib and Macalister. It’s best to park around Gurney and walk from there. Or better yet, take the bus.