Photo Essay: Thaipusam

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, and over time has developed into a ceremony practiced predominantly by the Tamil communities of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Mauritius. It's held on the first full moon of their first religious calendar month, usually January or February, as this is the holy month for Murugan. Devotees undergo the act of bearing burdens - known as kavadi - to show their gratitude they believe is due to Murugan for answering their prayers. These burdens take many forms, from simple pots of milk carried on the head, skewers through the cheeks & tongue, through to much more elaborate & heavy hooks & harnesses.

Before the festival begins, participants will abstain from 'luxury' items, remain celibate and eat only certain types of sanctified foods with the aim of cleansing their body & preparing them mentally for the task ahead. When the day arrives they are prepared physically & mentally for the ordeal of carrying their burdens.

In Singapore, devotees make their way to the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple. As well as those who are directly taking part, hundreds of holy figures, family & supporters throng the temple & surrounding area. Raucous music plays constantly and the air is thick with the smell of smoke, sour milk & incense as the participants are prepared for the burden they are about to carry.

The route winds through Singapore for four kilometers, ending at the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. It is here the final prayers are offered, the burdens relieved and the oath that the devotee made to Murugan is fulfilled.

It's an astonishing experience.

Even though the steel urn of milk is among the more modest of burdens, the determination and concentration on the faces of those undertaking the pilgrimage is plain to see. 

Some choose to forego walking the 4km route barefoot, choosing instead to walk on nail sandals. Often these are worn in addition to other burdens depending on the nature & level of gratitude the devotee wishes to demonstrate.

Piercing the skin with tiny hooks. Attached to the hooks are any number of religious symbols, small metal urns containing milk and even small limes or other citrus fruits (thought to be a preferred offering to Murugan).

A devotee steels himself before an attendant pierces his back with a dozen large steel hooks & ropes. Despite the pain he must clearly have been experiencing his focus was such that he didn't flinch or react as the hooks were embedded.

The same devotee after the necessary hooks have all been attached.

It is said that no blood is spilled during thaipusam. This isn't true although it's surprising how little blood is shed when a steel hook pushed into their skin. What blood we do see is very quickly covered with a dab of 'holy ash', something that's alleged to have spiritual & antiseptic properties.

The moment his tongue is pierced with a steel skewer the nearby musicians & those chanting reached a crescendo with supporters chanting and shouting.

Prepared and ready for the pilgrimage, those two men waited patiently in line for their chance to begin the walk.

Deep focus & concentration.

Some seemed to take the opposite approach to calm determination and instead were dancing, spinning and moving the whole time. Each participant seemed to take a different approach to carrying their burden.

Wrapped in a vel-kavadi where every metal line is a spear hooked into his flesh. Every step is painful but even so, most people carrying a burden of this type seemed to relish it, dancing in strange ways that jerked the spears up & down quickly before spinning and stopping quickly to push the metal spikes in deeper.

Many participants carrying their kavadi would shave their head but a huge number of onlookers - old & young - would have bald scalps covered in pigment & ash.

Weary, near the end of his walk, this man has pulled a heavy wheeled altar containing holy images behind him for almost 4km. You can see he has also hooked small metal pots of milk into his chest & back.

As the procession nears its destination queues start to build as devotees and pilgrims all wait to enter the temple. Signs of fatigue are visible in their faces.

Though the majority of those carrying burdens this day were men, the festival is open to all who wish to offer thanks.

Huge queues & bustling crowds mark the entrance to the temple as onlookers watch from the other side of safety barriers lining the route.

These two men had walked the whole route together and seemed to be exhausted. Behind them they have each pulled a large, heavy altar. Now they stand waiting patiently to enter the temple.

Their friends & family are behind them, tugging on the ropes hooked into their backs to maintain the tension. Though it looks absolutely brutal, when I asked why people were doing that I was assured that letting the tension dissipate only to have to pull the altars again later would be much more painful than maintain a moderate amount of tension at all times.

Of a sudden another chant started in the crowd and the two men who previously looked fit to give up started stamping, dancing their feet from side to side and banging their walking canes off the ground. Behind them, assistants pulled the hooks even tighter.

More hooks make the load easier to carry. It's likely these men felt that they owed a significant debt of gratitude to use comparitively few.

The destination of the pilgrimage where those who have carried kavadi are ultimately blessed. It is only a short walk from here to a small area where the devotees will be finally divested of their burdens.

With his pilgrimage over, this man was exhausted & trembling. He looked like he could barely stand, as if the now-removed spears of metal were somehow keeping him standing for the whole journey.

The tools & equipment needed to remove someone's burdens.

Though still attached to his vel-kavadi, this man has had the mouth-skewers removed. Despite friends & helpers all desperately asking questions and hurrying to remove the spears still piercing his skin he seemed absolutely oblivious to everyone. Sweat & blood ran down his entire body.

With only a few small hooks still left in his back this man stood, task accomplished yet still seemingly within whatever mental state was necessary to make the journey. He seemed utterly oblivious to the rest of the world, even when visited by a priest who covered him in more handfuls of holy ash.

HOW I CONSTRUCTED THE ESSAY

Like many Hindu festivals, Thaipusam was a riot of colour, smell & sound. At times, right in the path of the procession, it was confusing & disorienting. Even discounting the friends & family members who were there to support the pilgrims the whole event was thronged with tourists and onlookers, adding to the spectacle & chaos. Sometimes it was difficult to remove the distractions and find the intimate human moments & expressions of those taking part.

The biggest creative decision I had to make was whether to present my photographs in colour or black & white. I opted for punchy, high contrast black & white as you can see. Partly this was to remove some of the colourful background distractions; partly because although the assertion that no blood is spilled during Thaipusam is false, by removing the colour red I was in some way supporting that belief. 

For some images, the black and white emphasises what I want the viewer to see but for others it makes the images a jumble of tone & contrast. With the latter, I hope that it assists the viewer in looking longer at each image to fully absorb the scene & the nuances of expression.