Once a year — as dictated by the Tamil calendar — Hindus in Singapore and other countries with a significant Tamil population perform ritualistic ceremonies as part of Thaipusam. While this festive time includes more than just the Thaipusam rites this portion of the festival certainly attracts the most attention; closing down a number of thoroughfares and providing a spectacle for Indians and non-Indians alike. Before moving here I was encouraged not to miss seeing this with my own eyes since apparently Singapore does it bigger and better than even India. Honestly, I was worried I would pass out from watching the piercings. I’ve been known to get queasy at the sight of needles and even once became light-headed while watching an episode of True Blood. Yet as the day approached I couldn’t help but make my way the short distance down the road to Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple where morning preparations had begun. I made sure I slept well, ate a decent breakfast, and was fully hydrated before tempting my woozy tendencies. (Spoiler: I managed to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground the whole time)
During the morning of Thaipusam you can see families gather throughout the temple grounds on Serrengon Road to prepare for this day of sacrifice and atonement. Each family sets up an altar to perform pujas before and during the process. Approximately 48 days of prayer and fasting lead up in anticipation for Thaipusam when devotees carry a large metal cage-like structure, which while supported mostly by a harness fastened at the waist, is further intwined to the person through skewers and pierces. Men shout into their ears as the hooks are placed and devotees chew fervently on what looked to be beetle nut for the pain. Others looks as if they have gone into a state of meditation or trance. One man had shoes of nails he walked upon with the assistance of a large staff and a young boy who had the mischievous eyes of baby Krishna. Some do lighter versions of self-mutilation; a few small piercings along the arms, cheeks, or forehead while carrying a jug a milk on their head alongside family members.
One family in particular I gravitated towards. Amongst them one woman grabbed hold of my attention. She was the high priestess / shaman / matriarch of the group. She blessed the men with red kunkumam powder but she did it unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before. With one hand on her hip for stability, she absorbed herself into the eyes of the devotee, connecting to something deep within them, reading his thoughts, and checking in with the soul of his soul. When it seemed that she gotten the okay from something bigger, with stained hands she grabbed hold of the top of his head and smeared that red powder deep into the skin on his forehead and then proceeded to knead it into his heart center as well. At one point she swooned back and fell onto the altar set up on the ground. Without worry, those around picked her up and she continued on as before. I spent a fair amount of time watching them and then follow along with them for about 1km of the 4km walk to Sri Thendayuthapni Temple before tucking out of the fenced off walkway and grabbing a dosa for lunch in Little India. If you get the chance to witness the Thaipusam Festival in Singapore, Malaysia, or Mauritius I would highly recommend it for it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Check out my video below to get a full feeling for what it is like.