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.