In Singapore, Finding Peace Among the Pain of Thaipusam

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Ed Wray / AP

A Singaporean Hindu man with his cheeks and body pierced by steel spikes, as Hindu women carry heavy jugs of milk during the Hindu Thaipusam procession, Jan. 21, 2000 in Singapore

Three nights ago, N. Ramanathan, a middle-aged government worker, was one of the hundreds who stood outside Singapore's Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at midnight. It was the eve of the grueling Hindu festival known as Thaipusam and he was there to support a friend undergoing the ritual of kavadi-bearing — an agonizing rite that requires devotees to pierce their tongues, torsos, and lips with hooks and pointed steel rods that are in turn fixed to an elaborate steel framework (the kavadi), which weighs up to 30 kg. It must be carried by the devotee for several hours. If his friend faltered under the load, Ramanathan said, he would support him. "I do it every year," he explained. "I'll do it every year for life."

Celebrated under a full moon at the beginning of each year in Singapore and Malaysia, Thaipusam is known as one of the most physically agonizing religious festivals in the world. To the unfamiliar, and many of the tourists who flock to Thaipusam in Singapore are, the mesmerizing pain borne by kavadi-bearers can be hard to look beyond. But beneath the vivid spectacle, Thaipusam has a quiet and even tender meaning as a demonstration of love and loyalty, especially among Indian males not ordinarily inclined to displays of emotion. I came to Thaipusam, as I regularly do, to escape Singapore's air-conditioned malls and immaculately attired office-goers, and in doing so learned how the painful business of kavadi-bearing created, among participants and observers, a measure of peace. "Even the most selfish become, for that day, selfless," says S. Bhuvana, who marched alongside the kavadi-bearers. "That's a high."

Thaipusam honors the Hindu god Murugan and pain isn't the only physical sacrifice the god demands. Devotees must also abstain from meat, alcohol and sex during the month prior to Thaipusam. The festival is observed in pockets of southern India, but it is celebrated with far greater fervor within the immigrant Indian communities of Singapore and Malaysia, where it is linked to the region's unique colonial history. Indians from the region of Tamil Nadu began to immigrate to Singapore and Malaya in the 19th century, largely to work on British-owned rubber plantations. Cut off from their ancestral villages, laboring long hours for low pay, many turned to the Hindu god Murugan, son of the god Shiva, and who, in various versions of the Hindu epics, is seen as a figure of wrath and war. To them, Murugan became a symbol of perseverance and hope.

Though little of those original associations remain, the festival is still a powerful assertion of ethnic Tamil pride in multiracial Singapore, where the descendants of those original settlers now comprise roughly 9% of the island-state's population. On the hot afternoon I arrived at the gate of the Perumal temple, that pride was palpable. The temple was thronged by young women, in braided silk and flowing chiffon, their bare arms and necks heavy with gold. Inside, Shanmugan Doraisamy, a 25-year-old student, was preparing himself to carry his kavadi. A small crowd of family and friends surrounded him, beating drums and chanting as dozens of fish-sized hooks were first inserted into his bare torso and abdomen. Gray ash was smeared across his chest and mouth as the most agonizing part began: the insertion of a thin steel needle through his cheeks, followed by a trident-shaped stud into the tip of his tongue. Doraisamy barely flinched, though his father stood away as the most painful piercing took place, looking worried as his son's eyes closed and his head slowly bobbed up and down. Finally, a seven-foot-high kavadi was hoisted onto his shoulders and the march began.

The four-kilometer walk kavadi-bearers endure takes no less than four to five hours to complete, and by the time they reach the end, the mix of pain and exhaustion pushes most of them into a trance. They spin in circles on their bare feet, sending the turquoise-and-green peacock feathers adorning their kavadis into undulating waves. On the field where they lie afterwards on the grass, no words are spoken. Women simply feed them milk from copper vessels and rub half-cut limes over their bloodied backs.

So why undergo such an ordeal? What are its rewards? Doraisamy's uncle told me his nephew had vowed to carry the kavadi if he did well on his university exams, which he had. Indeed, those I encountered in the temple spoke more about gratitude — for a child or a job or the survival of a loved one's illness — than about atonement. A few seemed compelled by fear or superstition, but whatever the motives one fact became clear: none of them walked alone. Doraisamy certainly didn't — not during the procession, nor will he, I suspect, in the years ahead. Dressed in jeans and English Premier League football jerseys, his friends never left his side, showing him a tenderness I doubt they had, until then, ever displayed.