Thaipusam is a colorful celebration of the birthday of Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan), one of the paramount Hindu deities and son of Siva. He often is depicted as the Indian god who rides the peacock. The Hindus believe that by celebrating Thaipusam, they are cleansed of all sins and that their misdeeds can be redeemed in many ways during the festival. Thus before the actual day, Hindus must prepare themselves by observing a strictly regimented schedule of fasting, dieting and maintaining self-discipline – to purify themselves so that they may go into a trance-like state and transcend pain when carrying out the rituals on the day itself.
In my memoir on “The Occult,” I mentioned the Hindu festival of Thaipusam that several other Peace Corps volunteers and I attended northeast of Ipoh in Malaysia in 1964. It was such an important event in my life that I need to expand upon it. The Hindus in this case were descendants of Tamils, originally from south India, who had come to Malaysia several generations ago as laborers on the rubber estates.
I do not remember the name of the town nor the time of the year. My friend Lyn reminded me that I got there by taxi as this was the main mode of travel all over the country. You paid for a seat and as soon as it was full – which usually did not take long – off you went. Hair-raising at times, but it got you places. It was a typical morning – about 92 degrees Fahrenheit and with about 98 percent humidity.
For several days prior to the festival, the devout followers prepared themselves with purification rites and meditation.
On the holy day, the beginning of the festival started on the river bank. We situated ourselves across an inlet from the activity, no more that 25 yards away. Ringing of gongs and cymbals and the chanting of prayers had already begun. The continuing sound was cacophonous. The palette of colors was a kaleidoscope of colors of every color and hue – red, blue, yellow, orange, pink, turquoise, among others. Combined with the smell of burning incense, it was overwhelming. It made one wonder if you were disconnected from reality.
Those who will be carrying the kavadis (platforms) in the procession pass into a trance. These kavadis can either be a semi-circular structure or a platform that are decorated with colored papers, tinsels, fresh flowers, and fruits. Entering a trance is done by the shaking of the body, initially slowly but increasing to violent movements. Once in a trance, their eyes would be wide open but blank and vacuous.
The first really unsettling thing that I saw was two men assisting one of the persons in a trance by sticking a small stiff steel skewer through one of his cheeks and pushing it through the mouth and out the other cheek. To keep it from coming out, there was a chain attached to one end that was clipped to the other end after the piercing. There were many piercings such as this all over the body. There was no blood and no apparent pain.
I missed about ten minutes of the ceremony, for I got dizzy and weak and had to find a tree and sit in the shade. Finally, I say to myself “Get a grip on yourself, get your ass back to the river, you’ll never see anything like this again.”
I don’t know how much I missed, but I saw even more amazing things.
Several of the holy ones, were fitted out with the kavadis, which consisted of platforms on which statues of Lord God Subramaniam rode. These platforms were supported by 30-40 long stiff steel skewers. These rods were attached to the platform that the assistants then stuck into the waist of the persons in a trance. After the skewers were inserted into the waist, a cloth belt was wrapped around to hold them in place for the trip to the Temple. The rods went into the body only about an inch being stopped by a circle on the rod. The weight of the platform was supported by these rods in the waist and held up by the holy ones. Again, there was no blood and no apparent pain.
At around noon, the procession began from the river to the Hindu Temple which was probably about two to three hundred yards away. The holy, in a trance, need to be guided on the way. I saw one little boy, also in a trance, being guided to the Temple who carried a small kavadis. He did not have skewers in his body.
There was many, many who went into this small temple. We considered it unsafe; consequently, none of us Peace Corps volunteers witnessed the rest of the ritual.
My friend Lyn, a nurse, who was also with me that day, says “that no more than 2 days later I saw a man who had had his cheeks pierced and there was no evidence of it except faint pink marks on each cheek. That shook me up, which is why I remember it!”
I didn’t dwell on the why and how for very long. It was easier this way, particularly since I knew that I didn’t have enough faith in anything to ever be tempted to put myself to any such test.
Lyn sums up the experience by saying “… strong proof that the human mind (or psyche,
or consciousness or whatever term you can think of) has powers that we don’t understand.”