Posted by: adventuressetravels | March 30, 2012

A Festival of Faith and Fervor

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I gaped in disbelief:  skewers jutted out of devotees cheeks, impaling their faces.  Cruel hooks sliced through their backs’ with strings attached, either to massive floats hefted on the shoulders, or held by what appeared to be slave-drivers following them.  The skin stretched as they pulled against the people following who held the strings.

I didn’t think these things happened outside of S&M, body mutilation fanatics, or similar esoteric counterculture circles.   I certainly hadn’t expected to see it on the main roads of Penang, Malaysia. 

I’d come to the city because I’d heard great things about the architecture, culture, and of course the food.  Penang hadn’t disappointed – the colonial city had fascinating populations of 3 distinct cultures: Chinese, Indian, and Malay.  Not only did this combination lend itself to to a vibrant and delicious experiences, but the different cultures, intent on keeping their own identities, celebrate their unique traditions in elaborate festivals.

By a stroke dumb luck I’d ended up in Penang during festival season.  At the tail end of the Chinese New Year festival, I attended an event bidding a fond farewell to 2011.  The next day was the start of Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

Each year in late January or February, for the full moon in the Tamil month Thai, more than 600,000 devotees, monks, and tourists congregate around the Jalan waterfall to participate in this unbelievable festival. The temple gives away food, vendors sell their wares.  There is dancing, music, and any number of festivities.  But the most extraordinary aspect of this festival is certainly the devotion of the truly faithful. 

The festival kicks off innocently enough:  crowds lined the street picking up saffron-dusted coconuts off of huge pikes and them at the pavement.  The dry hand-grenade shells explode in noisy cracks as they hurl husk-shrapnel and chunks of meat over the noisily ebullient atmosphere of the crowd.  Stalls give away food and drinks to tourists and the faithful alike.  The coconut water baths the hot streets, washing away the dust, and protecting the devotee’s feet.

But the street’s coconut bath was not for the devotees alone.  It is chiefly for the matched pair of bulls who pull a massive elaborately-decorated chariot, that looks more like an actual building, than anything that should be moving, from a temple in little India to Nattukottai Chettiar Temple near Jalan waterfall. These sacred animals cannot set hoof on unwashed ground.  At least for the duration of the parade.

Along the way thousands of devotees press in to deliver heaping plates of fruit, flowers, and burning incense to the men on the massive silver chariot as the bulls slowly makes their way the kilometers and kilometers in the hot Malaysian sun. What a way to kick off the festival.

But this first day of festivities is only the beginning.  The next morning really separates the chaff from the wheat.  In the early hours of the morning devotees who have purified themselves through abstinence, rituals, and fasting, work them into trance-like states of meditation.  They participate in rituals of mortification of the flesh, piercing their cheeks, tongues or putting hooks and rings through their backs and strap on a kavadi.  

Kavadi

Kavadis vary in size but at their most basic they are a framework of bent wood or metal to be balanced on a devotee’s shoulders.  Built on top of that are elaborate colorful floats that can tower over the bearer. 

Incredibly these devotees do not use drugs of any type to fend off the pain of having large rods driven through their cheeks, hooks placed in their backs, or any of the seemingly agonizing parts of the ritual.  They mortify their flesh, and walk the long kilometers to the waterfall and up 270 steps to the waterfall, appear to be in no pain.

Even without a kavadi, I opted out of climbing the 270 steps to the temple.  I was content to watch the long procession of saffron-robed monks, kavadi-bearers, and joyous dancers from the bottom of the steps.

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I gaped in disbelief:  skewers jutted out of devotees cheeks, impaling their faces.  Cruel hooks sliced through their backs’ with strings attached, either to massive floats hefted on the shoulders, or held by what appeared to be slave-drivers following them.  The skin stretched as they pulled against the people following who held the strings.

I didn’t think these things happened outside of S&M, body mutilation fanatics, or similar esoteric counterculture circles.   I certainly hadn’t expected to see it on the main roads of Penang, Malaysia. 

I’d come to the city because I’d heard great things about the architecture, culture, and of course the food.  Penang hadn’t disappointed – the colonial city had fascinating populations of 3 distinct cultures: Chinese, Indian, and Malay.  Not only did this combination lend itself to to a vibrant and delicious experiences, but the different cultures, intent on keeping their own identities, celebrate their unique traditions in elaborate festivals.

By a stroke dumb luck I’d ended up in Penang during festival season.  At the tail end of the Chinese New Year festival, I attended an event bidding a fond farewell to 2011.  The next day was the start of Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

Each year in late January or February, for the full moon in Tamil month Thai, more than 600,000 devotees, monks, and tourists congregate around the Jalan waterfall to participate in this unbelievable festival. The temple gives away food, vendors sell their wares.  There is dancing, music, and any number of festivities.  But the most extraordinary aspect of this festival is certainly the devotion of the truly faithful. 

The festival kicked off innocently enough:  crowds lined the street picking up saffron-dusted coconuts off of huge pikes and them at the pavement.  The dry hand-grenade shells explode in noisy cracks as they hurl husk-shrapnel and chunks of meat over the noisily ebullient atmosphere of the crowd.  Stalls give away food and drinks to tourists and the faithful alike.  The coconut water baths the hot streets, washing away the dust, and protecting the devotee’s feet.

But the street’s coconut bath was not for the devotees alone.  It is chiefly for the matched pair of bulls who pull a massive elaborately-decorated chariot, that looks more like an actual building, than anything that should be moving, from a temple in little India to Nattukottai Chettiar Temple near Jalan waterfall. These sacred animals cannot set hoof on unwashed ground.  At least for the duration of the parade.

Along the way thousands of devotees press in to deliver heaping plates of fruit, flowers, and burning incense to the men on the massive silver chariot as the bulls slowly makes their way the kilometers and kilometers in the hot Malaysian sun. What a way to kick off the festival.

But this first day of festivities is only the beginning.  The next morning really separates the chaff from the wheat.  In the early hours of the morning devotees who have purified themselves through abstinence, rituals, and fasting, work them into trance-like states of meditation.  They participate in rituals of mortification of the flesh, piercing their cheeks, tongues or putting hooks and rings through their backs and strap on a kavadi.  

Kavadis vary in size but at their most basic they are a framework of bent wood or metal to be balanced on a devotee’s shoulders.  Built on top of that are elaborate colorful floats that can tower over the bearer. 

Incredibly these devotees do not use drugs of any type to fend off the pain of having large rods driven through their cheeks, hooks placed in their backs, or any of the seemingly agonizing parts of the ritual.  They mortify their flesh, and walk the long kilometers to the waterfall and up 270 steps to the waterfall, appear to be in no pain.

Even without a kavadi, I opted out of climbing the 270 steps to the temple.  I was content to watch the long procession of saffron-robed monks, kavadi-bearers, and joyous dancers from the bottom of the steps.

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Responses

  1. What can I say? Weird. Another world, one I thought was somewhere in the past. Religious zeal combined with competition.

  2. Some computer garbage needs to be removed. But nice that the pix are captioned.


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