A celebration of faith - Thaipusam

29th Jan 2010, a 5:30 am morning in Little India, Singapore.  The venue is the Sri   Srinivasa Perumal   Temple.

Quiet at first, then minute by minute, as the grey of dawn lifts like a  veil, the temple starts coming to life and soon it is teaming with tourists and  Singaporeans alike. A little unusual one would say, being a Saturday. Today  however is no ordinary day. It is the day of the much awaited Thaipusam  festival where devotees of Lord Murugan from all walks of life come  together to perform the 4 kilometer journey from this particular temple to the Chettiar Hindu  Temple here in Singapore.

There seem to be several origins to Thaipusam which is essentially a  Tamil festival, the more popular one being the day Lord Murugan destroyed the  demon Tharakasura. He was commanded to do so by his parents Lord Shiva and  Parvati using 12 weapons including a "vel" given to him by his  mother.

Whatever might be the origins of this festival, the significance  seems to be the same, expressed by thousands of devotees across Tamil Nadu,  Singapore and Malaysia. This is to show their faith in the Lord.  To convey gratitude towards the fulfillment of their vows and to offer  penance.

And what a way to do so! No simple stroll in the park; this walk of  faith undertaken by the devotees has a certain system to it. From the  previous night onwards, preparations start taking place. A cage like structure  decorated with peacock feathers and photo frames of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is  hoisted on to the shoulders. Weighing many a kilogram, this is called a kavadi  and symbolizes the burden one carries in life. Some carry milk pots. And  now comes the extreme part. Many of the devotees get themselves  pierced in various body parts before beginning the procession. Spears are  driven through tongues and cheeks. Hooks are sunk into fleshy  backs and spikes pass through the chest. And not a drop of blood is  shed in the process. This is done by skilled persons and mostly a relative  will help in the piercing.

Many dance through the procession with the burdens they carry,  unmindful of the onlookers and photographers keen to get that perfect  shot.

Such is the pain laid bare in this festival that one is forced to  look away and many a times one cannot help but wonder if there is  some other power at work; maybe some supernatural power or a hypnotic spell  cast by some sadhu which renders a person oblivious to pain.

I was so intrigued by this extreme piercing that the only way to appease  my curiosity was to stalk a devotee back home and probe into his personal  devotion.

Thanks to a family friend, I was lucky to get an appointment. Not  knowing what to expect and coming face to face with a kavadi bearer, who  must have presumably undertaken extreme piercing, clouded my initial enthusiasm  but I went ahead nevertheless.

Flash forward to this morning, time for my meeting. The gate to the  bungalow is opened for me and I step into a paradise of sorts. After the  initial tarred driveway, there is a canopy covered wood patio. A hammock  sways lazily in the breeze, comfortable armchairs are laid out. Shielded by  jute blinds from one side to block out the harsh sun, this deck is  surrounded by lush green palm fronds and ferns, from somewhere comes the  soothing gurgle of a water body. Similarly in the house I am enveloped by an  aroma of solid teak, incense and sandalwood. A carved reclining statue of  Ganesha casts it's reflection into the polished floor and a grand piano  blends in with the rest of the furniture. Souvenirs from all across the  world adorn the shelves. A different cry from the hot sweltering day at the  Thaipusam festival.

As the master of the house, Mr.Rajoo approaches me. I am struck by  his sophistication and simplicity and wondered how they co-exist. We get  talking and very soon the subject veers to Thaipusam.

He informs me that he has been taking part in the festival for nearly 28  years now, since the age of 21. While the reasons for participation may vary from  person to person, the common factor that binds everyone is faith.  

"The first couple of years", he recollects, "were the  most difficult. I was in pain and discomfort. I had fear in my heart and  doubted my faith. With the passing years, my faith is unshakeable and I have  experienced extreme forms of piercing. The chest, back, tongue, cheeks. In  short, deeper the faith, the more possible it is to gain mastery over the  physical self and then pain and temptation seem far away.

"For an onlooker the attraction is probably merely the piercing.  But that is because the onlooker and the devotee might not be on the  same level of consciousness. The piercing is not all that Thaipusam is  about. It's about the cleansing of the soul. Each one of us is a worker, a  professional, a family person. Day to day rigors of life take their toll on the  soul. This is to detach oneself temporarily, meditate, and think of Ishwar more  often.

It is not possible for a person to get up one fine day and decide to get  himself pierced. The actual day of Thaipusam is preceded by fasting, abstinence  from alcohol and meat along with praying, chanting and meditation. Then on  the 14th day you may feel you are ready to participate. There is no coercion;  it is entirely a voluntary act.” He goes on to tell me how he is the first  person from his family to take part in Thaipusam. He is not sure whether his  son will go on to participate, but again, the desire to participate must come  from within.

I ask the question that has been foremost in my mind; "Do you feel  pain from the piercing”? He smiles and says "Yes, that is what everyone  wants to know. Do we feel pain? Of course we feel pain. Is it possible to get  pierced and not feel pain? There is no drug given or hypnotic trance induced to  nullify the pain and there are no supernatural forces at work. Yes they might  be at work in a way as to enable us to endure the pain.

Sometimes, it has  taken me as long as 10 hours to reach the temple since there is a long line of  devotees waiting to get a glimpse of the Lord. But once in the temple, the  pain vanishes and unadulterated joy springs from within. Then I cannot help but  dance in spite of the kavadi and the piercings. I offer prayers not for myself but  for my family, friends and the world. For myself, I don’t need anything since I  have experienced supreme happiness. And this feeling of accomplishment, of  extreme peace and satisfaction is something that no money and no worldly object  can bring. But having completed that, I am back at work in my office the very  next day!”

As I prepare to  take leave, I shoot one last look at the grand piano and ask him who plays it.  He gives me his card and says “Everyone, all my children”. Then smiling at me  he says “trust me, I am a very ordinary person.” I take his card and as the  words ‘Managing Director’ unassumingly glance up at me; I am humbled by this  act of faith, this little lesson of life, of belief and of finding balance in  the extremes.

To see pictures of the festival click here.

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