Thaipusam in Penang: our experience
We had planned to leave Penang after the Chinese year celebrations, however when we heard about Thaipusam in Penang, we extended our stay. We heard tales of spikes pierced through participants’ skin with no pain or blood and trance-like states. Intrigued by these stories, we decided to stay longer on the Malaysian island.
5am on Thaipusam day
After a late night, the night before, we found it a little difficult to get up so early, however we were determined not to miss this unique event. Arriving at 5am by Uber, as we mostly did in Penang, we found an unusual site – on one side was the Sri Muthu Mariamman
Another group of male Indians were drumming and chanting vel, vel, vetri (victorious) or Vel, Vel Muruga (Glory unto Muruga). We headed closer and found a man already pierced with a spear through his mouth, carrying a kavadi as a mark of respect for Lord Muruga. A Tamil God (Tamizh Kadavul), Lord Murga represents youth, virtue and power and fights evil. He carries a spear and rides on a peacock, both elements, which are incorporated into the festival of Thaipusam.
Preparing the body to carry the burden
Next to the drummers, a small group huddled together, shrouded by local photographers. Cautiously we walked over to see what all the fuss was about.
In amongst the camera lenses and crowds of heads, we saw this Thaipusam participant, lying on the floor – his skin being pierced with many hooks placed in his back. The soundtrack of vel, vel, vetri and drumming continued and the air was thick with smoking incense. To our surprise, the man actually seemed fairly chilled out, even as he was being stabbed by many metal hooks.
Once the ‘reins’ had been placed on his back, the man sat up on a chair and it was now that we could get a proper look at the brutal hooks that were severing his back.
Next began the process of adorning his chest with metal cups – these too hooked into his skin. All the while, the drumming and chanting providing a sense of comfort and encouragement. Many Hindus go through this seemingly torturous ordeal during Thaipusam to show their appreciation to Lord Muruga. The tradition came to Malaysia in the 1800s when Indian immigrants arrived to work on the rubber estates and in government roles.
After his final accessory was placed through his cheeks, this participant began the long walk up to the Waterfall Hill Temple, with hundreds of others.
Blessings are given and milk prepared
As the sun rose, blessings and offerings took place outside the temple and silver pots were filled with blessed milk.
Beginning the long walk to the temple
As we walked the route to the temple, we saw dozens of milk carriers yielding metal pots on their heads, ready to take up to the hill.
Many onlookers followed the procession, dressed in their finest traditional garb.
As we walked through the streets, it became alive with Thaipusam followers dancing, praying and eating from the street-side stalls.
We also passed many other people carrying kavadis (elaborate floats and decorations attached to their bodies), speared participants and milk carriers. Some were having more trouble enduring the task than others. As we neared the temple, the crowd intensified and we began the (very) slow ascent to up to the top of the hill.
On the way up, we saw the pierced-participants who had made the sacred walk, being relieved of their metallic additions, enabling them to walk up the jammed staircase more easily. Every now and again we would hear the sound Vel, Vel Vetri, which when you are in a crowd of people seems to also mean ‘make way’ — for the milk carriers and pierced participants. After a long wait, we eventually got a good glimpse of the temple itself.
Arriving at the temple
At the entrance to the temple, a sign pointed to lanes for specific items. If you had come with a kavadi, go to lane one; a milk pot, lane two; or anything else it seemed — lane three. We felt a little guilty that we did not bring anything, and were disappointed that we couldn’t watch the milk-pouring ceremony from nearby. However, we managed to see the milk being transferred into great vats, which in turn fed into a waterfall and splashed over a giant religious statue.
As we made our way around the crowded temple, we saw people taking blessings by quickly touching fire and others drinking the milk, which had gone through the whole system.
We felt exhausted and a little overwhelmed, even without having carried a burden all that way. We descended the staircase and headed back on the street where the party was only just getting started and free vegetarian food and drinks were handed out to all.
If this photo essay interested you then perhaps our Chinese New Year in Penang post will also interest you.