So a few warnings. There is a lot of words and a lot of photos. There are some great videos way at the end. Also, a warning I suppose that there are pictures of people with hooks in them. There is no blood, and it is not gruesome but still fair warning.
Just recently Iris and I completed our 6 month survey. As you might recall, it was a collection of questions we plan on answering every six months as long as we are living in Malaysia. (and because it has come up several times in the last few weeks for me, let me just start being unsubtle about it: If Trump wins the chances of us moving back to The States will shrink significantly!) I had a hard time coming up with my favorite moments. I have loved living here for sure. The question about my favorite thing about living in Malaysia was “living in Malaysia”. I love the overall experience of living in a foreign country. Iris and I have done some amazing things, eaten some amazing food, and seen some wonderful places. So far though, nothing was really life changing and because of this, I struggled with answering that question. Well, I think that has changed.
It will take a few days, if not weeks or months, to really process what I saw this weekend. I will only speak for myself in this post, as I do not want to deprive Iris the chance to talk about it should she so desire. So if I do lapse into the collective pronoun of “we” it is a force of habit, because although I think Iris agrees, I am not speaking for her.
I am also going to write this blog a bit different. I will write all of my thoughts and feelings first, then go back into the blog to add some pictures and videos. This might seem like a small difference but considering that most of these blog posts are built around pictures of food, this is a bit of a radical departure.
So Sunday 23rd of January was Thaipusam. This is a Hindu holiday. Now it’s meaning I am not sure about. I had read about it beforehand, and had one understanding of the holiday. (The wikipedia article about it is the same as everything else I read) but when we were at the temple Iris’s boss’s husband gave us a different explanation. He is an Indian Catholic, but had family members participate in the festivities so that does make him a expert of a certain kind about this day.
But maybe this is besides the point. The important things are this: It is a religious holiday where the faithful show their devotion through mortification of the flesh. Fancy way of saying that they pierce themselves with various hooks and mini spears and what not. The big added “bonus” if you well is something called the kavadi. People bring milk as an offering to Murugan, the primary god being worshipped on the holiday. Most people bring it in a nice jug. Some people create elaborate and beautiful holder for it that is big, heavy, religious, and attached to their bodies via hooks and poles. How they do this, well, we will get to that…I gotta build the drama first right?!
Iris’s boss very generously offered to take us to Ipoh for Thaipusam at Thanksgiving when they were also very generously taking us out to dinner. They like Iris, they find me delightful, and their daughter loves us both. Ipoh is about 2 hours north of KL. It is a former tin mining town that has now focused on marble and limestone. On the drive in you can see mountains and hills that are disappearing as they are blow up bit by bit in order to create cement and other products. Kind of sad to see.
We would be staying with The Boss’s husband’s father, Mega. He is a very nice man who lives in a very big house with a man whose name I can not recall, but he can not talk. He appears to act like a helper/butler but I really could not pin down what it is he does there, but he does live there as well. But again, besides the point: He is very nice and very helpful as well.
We did other stuff in Ipoh and as I am writing this I realize that I do not want to write too much about it. If I remember to, I will post some pictures at the end that sum up our non-Thaipusam Ipoh experience but no guarantees.
Saturday night at about 10pm after drinks and dinner we went to the temple. Essentially devotees go to one temple to be blessed and prepared to carry the kavadi. They then walk 8-9kms to the other temple to complete their offering to Murugan. Remember that distances when you see the pictures of what these people are carrying. Also, remember that during the day it is VERY hot in Ipoh, and they are walking barefoot. On asphalt. So because of this, but mostly because the number of people participating in the holiday has exploded, some people being their process on Saturday night. Ultimately, they have to make the offering on Sunday, the actual holiday. Those we saw at the temple on Saturday would ultimately do this because again, they are walking 8-9kms with mini temples on their shoulders.
The place was packed, as we expected it to be. The smell of incense hung heavily in the air. And the drums. In order to show their devotion they use the hooks and other piercings. In order to be able to withstand this pain, they enter into a trance. This is done through praying, making offerings to the gods, other religious ceremony, and the drums. Each person carry the kavadi has to have a large support team with them. This often includes family members and friends, but it also includes a mini drum core, as you will see and hear in a bit. It is through these drums and praying that they enter into a trance and are able to be pierced without pain and without any blood. This is correct, no blood. Partly, I am told, this is due to the ashes they spread on themselves in the piercing locations. According to my source, the ash is cow and so of course it is sacred.
Once they get to the other temple, they circle the temple either once or three times. Everything is an odd number. If you carry the kavadi, you have to do it 1 year, 3 years, 5 years or 7 years and so on. Again, it is a big operation involving a lot of people so it is quite an undertaking. The drum corps will often make multiple trips throughout the night, escorting several devotees on their journey.
As I am writing this I realize that words will not do it justice, but hopefully my pre-amble gives you some kind of idea about what the pictures show you. I will add that this was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The devotion of the faithful, the willingness to undergo body mortification in order to prove their belief is incredible. As I stood in the table, listening to the drums, sweating from the heat and hearing the constant beating of the drum I was overcome with emotion. Experiences like this is why I have always wanted to live abroad. The world is a big place and there is a lot of it I want to see. This weekend, I saw something incredible. I saw something that I would never have gotten to experience if I was living in America. I experienced something that is, in reality, uniquely Malaysian. The holiday is mostly celebrated by Indians living in Malaysia and the nearby countries.
I also thought a lot about the beauty of the human experience, about the search for meaning we all must undertake to understand who we are, and why we are here. Those who carried the kavadi have a good understanding of why they are here and to watch them celebrate that was incredibly moving. It was a celebration, although I am sure that some of you will look at these pictures and find it weird or some kind of grim holiday but I would solidly disagree. The ritual of body mortification, while something I would never undertake myself, is a choice made by the individual to proof themselves holy, to prove themselves worthy of the divine. I think this is an effort we all engage in on some level. Seeing the world, or at least this little corner of it for now, is my search for the divine. I believe that ultimately I will find it in situations like Thaisupam. I do not believe in god but I after seeing things like this I being to believe that the divine is in all of us and that we are all a holy manifestation of the act of beauty that is the human experience.
Okay, let’s get on to some pictures and videos!
Above, the man is going into a trance. You could see people’s body language change when they were in the trance. The next day, we could see people coming out of the trance and once again see their body language change.
Above, getting the piercings taken out. Below…more photos. The videos are coming soon!
So this guy in the photos below is in a trance and is an evil god. Apparently this is done to seek revenge on people or protection. Because of the revenge part, the authorities usually do not allow people to do this.
And last photo: The youngest devotee we saw that day. And yeah, his tongue is pierced