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.
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.