Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Now that's a lot of Body Piercing! Thaipusam in Penang

That is not a shirt. It's multiple body piercings.

Warning: This post is not for the faint of heart. But if you've already looked at the first photo, you might as well proceed.

Back in Austin, I knew quite a few people with body piercings where I used to work. On the tamer end of the scale was anyone with multiple ear piercings or belly button rings. The lovely receptionist had a few rings going through her eyebrow with a thin chain connecting them to the piercings on her earlobes. During meetings, I could sometimes hear the clack-clack-clack noise of another coworker running the tiny barbell in her tongue back and forth across her teeth. One man had pierced his belly button, nipples and nether regions (although no one independently confirmed the last one). Are you thinking that I worked at some club or bar? Nope! It was a biotech company.

Anyways, these people had absolutely nothing on the rows and rows of body piercing I saw at Penang's Thaipusam festivities. It was quite a sight. In the picture above, all those silver urns covering the man's torso and arms have been hooked directly into his skin. Dozens more hooks covered his back. The man would occasionally stop and lean forward, pulling the ropes taut to add more discomfort (to put it mildly). From the front, I could see he had at least eight sets of chains and hooks draped across his face.

Thaipusam is one of Penang's biggest Hindu celebrations and also a public holiday. This being the multi-ethnic country of Malaysia, it overlapped with the the last day of Chinese New Year as well as the Islamic observation of Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Thaipusum marks the triumph of good over evil when Lord Murugan received a spear and defeated an evil demon.  I first heard of it when I was researching our trip to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur which has an even bigger crowd for the occasion.

The festival starts in Little India with a beautiful, silver chariot carrying a statue of Lord Murugan along an all-day, 10-kilometer pilgrimage to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on Waterfall Road. To symbolically cleanse the chariot's path, devotees walk ahead of it smashing coconuts on the road. I didn't go to this part of the celebration, but a friend who witnessed it tells me that a mini bulldozer followed the chariot, pushing the shells aside to literally clean up after the symbolic cleansing. Apparently, coconut smashing can only occur during approved times.

Hubby and I joined in on the activity closer to the temple. As we approached, I could hear the loud music and rhythmic drumming. The scent of incense and savory spices from the snack stalls mingled in the air. It was definitely a festival atmosphere — lots of people and food, souvenirs for sale, and Angry Bird balloons. Those birds are popping up everywhere.

Numerous companies and families set up booths along Waterfall Road to offer drinks and nourishment to the devotees. HEB was a major sponsor. No, not the Texas grocery store chain. I'm referring to the Hindu Endowment Board.

Intel's Thaipusam booth.
I bet they don't have this at their Santa Clara, California headquarters.

Forget your offering of milk and sweets? No worries. Pick some up here.

Beautiful sidewalk chalk drawings lined the road, too.

All along the road, devotees of Lord Murugan carried kavadis, or physical burdens, to offer up to him as penance, thanksgiving, or in supplication. The simplest kavadis are urns of milk carried upon the head. Others kavadis are tall portable altars decorated with peacock feathers. They are balanced upon a man's shoulders and hips and then connected to him with hooks piercing his skin.

Woman with milk urn on her head in front and a two giant kavadis behind her.

 I wanna see your jaw dropping, eye popping, head turning, body shocking peacock kavadi.

The biggest burden is the multiple body piercings. Sometimes a spear representing Lord Murugan's weapon threads its way in one cheek, through the tongue, and out the other cheek. The piercings are done in front of a public crowd in Little India before the pilgrimage begins and removed after the offering is made at the temple.

I am truly amazed by how devoted these people are. It makes my promise to give up chocolate for Lent kind of lame in comparison. But hey, that's just how I roll.

Related Posts:
Kuala Lumpur: Temples and Caves

This post is part of Photo World Mondays on Travel Photo Discovery. Check it out for more visual delights.


  1. Hi Michele

    I think you're right about the back story. They seem intertwined. You know, I saw some pretty spectacular kavadis here in Singapore but I didn't see anything like the milk pots over the entire torso like you saw. That's incredible! We were told that in recent years, the temples here have had to put rules in place to keep the displays within reason. Apparently the devotees were getting out of hand with the size and extreme measures they were taking. Makes me curious just how extreme they had become. Or maybe I'd rather not know...

    We also saw the coconuts being smashed but only at the entrance to the final temple and not everyone was doing it. Those who did made it a very dramatic event. LOL. Oh, the other thing that was similar was the tents with the snacks and such for the devotees. One of the largest supporters of the Singapore Thaipusam festival was the Buddhist Society. We were told that they always come out to help each others community during their religious festivals. It was nice to see such support and acceptance between religions.


    1. You may not have seen milk pots on the torsos, but I don't recall seeing skewers connecting the tall kavadis to the body like you have in your pictures. For some reason, it looked more painful than hooks. It's interesting to see the similarities and differences in Singapore versus Penang's celebrations.

  2. Wow that is a very strange and yet cool festival, yes I don't think it looks like an Intel related event. Thanks for sharing this interesting festival.

  3. OMG! What an interesting festival - I'll enjoy it from a distance via your blog! Great photos!

  4. oh no! I couldn't handle going to this festival! fascinating though it is I am so glad I am only seeing it through your blog.
    Have a great week, I am joining you through Travel Photo Monday.


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