Thaipusam: Spiritual food for the soul, not the stomach.

Poles of the kavadi are bolted through stomach flesh.
As a Foodwalker, the majority of my street roaming attention is on food, or things related thereto. And within the realm of food production, selling, cooking and eating – down the countless narrow alleys, beneath slanted shacks and within the confines of holes in the walls – lies fascinating culture which both defines the cuisine of the local area and at the same time transcends it into something greater than the subject of gastronomy, but of humanity. This element behind indigenous cuisine is one of the main ingredients making food taste so good.

But every now and then events occur which, though not related to food, seem still to fit a Foodwalker’s cultural passion. Like this month’s holy Hindu celebration of Thaipusam. It is on this one day each year that Tamil worshipers express prayers of gratitude to Lord Muruga and his victory over evil forces of darkness in the world, and make the final push for divine help in fulfilling their religious vows. The celebration is also one of atonement, where worshippers pay penance for the past year’s failings and pray for a better and more prosperous year ahead.
It’s no easy task. After fasting for anywhere from three days to a month, a devotee impales himself with religious decorations and items of significance. I’m not talking pinpricks here – he forces hooks, skewers and steel spikes into – even through -- his cheeks, tongue, lips, shoulders, chest, back and beyond. He then embarks, in a trance-like state, on a pilgrimage from one holy temple to another.

The items attached to hooks and chains vary, each representing a specific wish. Limes, for example, symbolize protection by the deities. Small pots contain sacred cow’s milk for cleansing and good fortune. To apply these adornments, selected areas of skin are massaged for a moment with white, holy ash, then the steel skewers and hooks are plunged through the tissue and out the other side – with no pain killers.

Many pious individuals also don steel or wood float-like structures called a kavadi (appropriately meaning “burden”) on their shoulders. The kavadi is traditionally decorated with peacock feathers, aluminum plates and gold ornaments which show images of Hindu deities. Bells, chains and other elaborate components drape from them and attach to the skin. Often weighing up to 15 kg (33 lbs), the kavadi is supported by long steel spikes which extend down from the base and pierce the skin on the chest, stomach and back to hold it in place. Support rods are bolted through thick folds of skin at the base of the abdomen to hold it all in place. With every step the sharp points and poles jiggle and poke a little deeper.
Spikes in the worshipper's chest help support the kavadi.

It requires great determination and endurance to pull off the pilgrimage and the toll it takes on many worshipers is palpable. Sometime one will begin to fade out of consciousness, only to be encircled by supporters, singing and chanting, clanging and drumming – louder and faster – as if to revive him enough to continue forward. Often someone will pause to hold a pilgrim up until he regains poise within his spiritual trance. The procession has been stopped by authorities in many countries, including even in parts of India. But it remains an annual tradition in Malaysia, where hundreds of thousands head to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, and here in Singapore, where it’s an arduous trek beneath the blistering sun and high humidity from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

Friends and family walk with the devotee, encouraging him on and often carrying pots of milk on their heads during the procession. The clamor of drums, cymbals, horns and bells rings out from every devotee’s group, helping to keep him entranced, while Indian religious music blasts onto the street from the many merchants along the pilgrimage path. 

Walking on a bed of nails.

Though most walk barefooted on the hot pavement of the streets, some traverse on a literal bed of nails – spiked wooden sandals strapped to their feet – each step probing deeper into their soles. A cane is often needed to help support themselves with each, painful step.

Such large-scale public acts of penance are not witnessed much around the world anymore. And the degree of fortitude and personal sacrifice of those practicing this sacred passage impales an onlooker’s memory nearly as deeply as the hooks in the worshipers’ skin. It demands passion and commitment and generations of prior practice, which draws parallels for this Foodwalker to the culture behind something else equally as remarkable and magnificent from India: its food.