Thaipusam in Penang 2013

Amazement, intrigue, shock, wonder, exhaustion, connection, sadness, and joy were just a few of the feelings we experienced this year at the Thaipusam festival in Penang.

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated annually coinciding with the full moon in Jan/Feb.  According to wiki, "The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel "spear" so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman."  Many believe it is the Lord Marungan's (God of war) birthday but it is not.

I was thrilled when I realized we would be in Penang during this celebration.  There is a huge Hindu population and I had heard that second to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur this would be THE celebration.  I had been reading about Thaipusam for a couple of years now, especially when I went through my, I NEED to get to India, phase.

I tried to rally the family but with the 5 year old sick, and Dylan uninterested it came down to just the 9 year old and I.  Good for us because we were able to ride the motorbike down towards Gurney avoiding all the traffic along the way.  We left the house at 9am and proceeded to the newly built waterfall temple.

We were stopped short around Burma Rd.  For anyone who does not know the layout of Penang that left us with quite a walk still.  I was immediately thrilled no one else came as I could see that the length of the walk coupled with the heat of the day, the crowd, and the somewhat gory component to the celebration was simply only going to work for the 9 year old and I.  We chose wisely as what was meant to be a quick hour or so ended up with us returning home around 3pm!

So what happens at Thaipusam??

I can hear you asking already.  The devotees spend days ahead of the festival fasting and remaining pure.  On festival day many will shave their heads and receive special blessings.  They then head out on a pilgrimage walking from a temple in Georgetown to the waterfall temple.  Trust me it is quite some distance.  The most amazing or disturbing part though is the devotional acts they carry out for the duration of the walk.

Hindus take a vow to make an offering for the purpose of righting a wrong or avoiding some disaster that may befall them.  These offering are called Kavadi and some are simple, like a pot of milk balanced on their heads, while others are much more intense and complex.  Perhaps the most fascinating part of the festival for us was the piercings and skewers.  Mostly men pierce their skin, cheeks, or lips with skewers, or mini swords.  Still other will be pierced all over their bodies and at times even attached to something or someone pulling on those piercings.  There is very little blood involved and apparently most are in a state of trance and so pain is lessened as well.

It really is a tough thing to explain and even after weeks I still cannot put into words the feelings in a way that accurately describes it so I will start with these pictures....

Smashing coconuts is a way to cleanse the path
A common temple site

The crowded stairway leading to the temple

Mass milk offering, the tubs would then be emptied over the larger statue 

A service for carrying followers up the stairs
Yes it was this crowded for miles and miles

This man was walking on shoes made of nails and had to sit down often

We walked for miles, up towards the temple, climbing the stairs to the temple where we spent at least 2 hours observing the various cultural elements that made this day so unique, and talking to the participants.  As we walked back through the crowds we couldn't help but notice that even in the heat and crowd and chaos of it all we hardly noticed anytime had passed at all.

We realized how lucky we are to live in a world of such tolerance and sharing.  How lucky we are to be traveling this world to see first hand how open and welcoming it really is.  This was a day that my son and I will remember for a lifetime, not just because of the piercings but because of the welcoming nature of the people.  Through their celebration we felt joy, tearful sadness, and a connection that I never expected to experience.  In all its diversity there is a common decency and brotherhood in the world that places us all as human first and today reminded us of that!

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  1. Replies
    1. It sure did. I think it was something about the private type nature or importance to them of hwat they wee doing and then their willingness to speak with us and let us take photos, answer or questions etc. Reminded me how amazing this diverse world is!

  2. We experienced Thaipusam in Penang last year and we are still thinking about it a lot. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and like you say, something you will never forget! That guy will all the coconuts - crazy!!

    1. Yes, truly amazing! The guy with the coconuts was awesome. He had them all over his back as well. The part that is most amazing is how far he walked like that and UP all those stairs to the new temple. My son and I were dying and we weren't carrying a thing. I think it is 272 steps up....mind blowing commitment!

  3. Wow, I would love to see that. I do find it difficult to view the pictures without thinking "pain!" but I love to see other cultures. Perhaps we will make it out that way one day.

    1. It really did look painful. I think that is what bothered my son a little, he is sensitive in worrying about others and he seemed worried for them. But we watched them get the piercings removed up at the temple and they hardly bled and did not seem in pain as strange as that seems.

  4. They were all so cool and I don’t know how they could bare such pain, truly amazing.

    1. I know, it looked like it hurt but honestly they did not seem like they were in very much pain.

  5. Never thought of such a painful situation but yet an outstanding experience.

  6. It’s really amazing and to see people doing stunts for god.

    1. It was quite amazing but I don't think I would call it stunts. They feel very strongly about what they are doing:)

  7. It’s scary but yet wishing to see it in reality.