Thaipusam 2006

Update: I now have Photos of Thaipusam 2006 available here.

Thaipusam was completely amazing. Seriously. I don’t know where to begin – it was one of the most intense, incredible sights/events I’ve ever witnessed and I can’t imagine too much that would top it in terms of sheer craziness. Terrible and terrifying, beautiful and sublime, Thaipusam was incomparably intense and fantastic.

But, I’m bloody exhausted from it. I got up at 3:30am and was supposed to leave at 4, but another guy who was supposed to come along failed to set an alarm, so we left at 4:30. He’s another photographer, so that explains him being a wanker – most photographers are. I’m the exception. Go on, try to disagree with me, I dare you!

So I got out there about 5. Already the place was seriously hopping. There’s a procession from a temple inside town and I know there were already revellers at the caves the day before, so there’s plenty of Hindu piecing going on through the night. A bunch of people stop at a nearby village where they get themselves pierced and go into their trances.

I started snapping photos straight away even though it was still dark. Some of the tranced-out weirdos didn’t want their photos taken, but it was impossible to know which ones, so I just went for it and got yelled at a couple times. There was one time when one guy in a trance didn’t like my camera flash. He got away from his handlers and stormed up to me with a furious bluster and an intense stare in his eyes then bumped his chest into mine. I just stood my ground while he got in my face before his handlers retrieved him apologetically.

When I mention the handlers, they really do seem like animal handlers at times. The guys who have gone into trances are pretty wild sometimes. The little posse that surrounds them makes sure that they stay in the procession and they clear out room for when they guys start freaking out.

There were, of course, plenty of guys with hooks a plenty through their skin. There were a few different kinds of revelers. Some of them had the hooks through their back and were then roped or chained to another guy who was pulling on them and holding onto them as they struggled forward. Others had a whole bunch of offerings hooked into them like apples, oranges, limes, flowers, small containers of milk and so on.

Then there were the guys that had, for lack of a better word, headdresses. But that’s a really misleading term. Basically, these guys had a metal hip-belt bolted around them and shoulder pads that supported an enormous, tiered construction that featured Hindu icons, peacock feathers or large religious images. The things had both a diameter and a height of two or three metres.

All of the headdresses had chains with hooks leading down that, it goes without saying, got hooked into the reveler. These dudes would also dance around and spin and if you weren�t careful, you’d get a Hindu god upside the head as they spun around.

A bunch of folks also had their cheeks pieced all the way through or their tongues were skewered.

So they all progressed towards the Batu Caves and eventually all got up all 274 steps. The back-stretching devotees had to unhook before they went through the entry arch at the base of the steps though. I can just see their handlers pulling them too hard and causing an avalanche of revelers, hooks and offerings. The headdress bearers, however, had to carry that stuff up the steps. Didn’t look fun.

Once at the top, a lot of the people with lots of offerings would bless devotees. I think that when they were in a trance they were supposed to be in more direct communication with a god and thus that much more holy. (By the way, this whole affair has truly exposed my ignorance of Hindu culture � it has been a long time since Religious Studies 205 and I should really brush up.) The still punked-out headdress bearers often spoke in tongues, yelped or grunted instead of using real words.

I watched one guy blessing a bunch of devotees and I remember one older woman getting blessed and she was just so genuinely moved. She started crying and it was somehow rather beautiful.

I was watching one guy get his dozens of oranges unhooked and he was giving them to onlookers. I got a big orange from this absolute beast of a man. He was enormous and never flinched for a second while getting unhooked. He would give out an orange, grunt loudly and wave off the recipient. He was also wielding an enormous club-like object which made the scene that much better. ‘You take orange! You leave now! AAAGRGH!’

A bunch of the dudes, when they got unhooked or unpierced, freaked out a bit (often the tongue or cheek piercings that did it). Some passed out. Some had fits. Some fell to the ground screaming and clawing at the floor.

After they were through with their fit, they took a while to settle down then they were back to normal and joking around with their friends.

Thousands of people were also buying offerings in plastic bags for the monkeys that live at the caves. All these bags were getting tossed to the critters who were climbing down from ridiculous heights to get them. These bags added to the litter everywhere. The base of the cliffs were especially filthy. And so much of it was styrofoam containers full of food scraps.

Toward the end of the day, I went over to the village where they do the piercings and watched some of them up close. They don’t bleed! I don’t know how it happens, but they don’t. Sometimes there was a tiny amount of blood when they got unhooked, but they quickly smeared ash on the hole and there was hardly a drop to be found.

I watched one of the headdress guys get hooked in and a guy carrying around 60-70 apples get his fruit on. I also saw one of the back-hook guys get one of his done. That was the most unsettling because those hooks were a lot bigger: about the size of a straw around plus they were considerably longer than the small fish hook-sized offering hooks. He had already started pulling at his ropes when his handlers saw that one hook had fallen out, so they held the guy down from his straining and hooked it back in. That was the only time I felt a little uneasy about the piercing stuff.

I saw a woman with hair that was more than 10 feet long. She was probably just over five feet tall and probably over 80 years old. The hair went down to her feet, then looped back up a couple feet, then went back down again. I don’t think it had been washed in decades. I think birds could have made a comfortable home in there. Like emus.

Really, I saw so much wacky weirdness I can’t really even process it. It was such a sensory overload.

I ended up staying until past 7 at night, so that was a really long day for me. Then I had a birthday thing to go to with some folks I met in Taman Negara, so I’m still pooped now. I’m also surprisingly stiff from the day’s continuous walking and my feet don’t like me much anymore.

As for photos, I took more than 1000. When I put them onto the computer this morning, the total was 1048. That’s easily a daily new record for me. I haven’t looked at them yet, but there better be at least one or two winners in there.

I genuinely can’t imagine many scenes that would surpass Thaipusam in terms of intensity and sensory overload. I’m so glad I scheduled my itinerary around it even though that has caused some roundabout routes for my trip. It was well worth an extra trip here. But if I’m ever lucky enough to catch it again, maybe I won’t spend 14 hours straight there and wind up feeling like I was among the revelers.

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