In Malaysia every year men and women skewer themselves with sticks, spears and hooks in the name of religion. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Thaipusam Festival.
Penang, Malaysia. Its 5am, and in a car park down a side street, eight guys in striped polo shirts and t-shirts are banging drums. A small crowd is wailing and swaying to the beat. And a bare chested man is having a four foot pole pushed through his cheeks by two other men.
A man with a big belly and an even bigger smile is watching the impaling closely.
“That’s my son.” he says proudly
A woman in a yellow sari with her hands in the air is spinning around madly to the sound of the drums. Lost in some kind of trance, her friends are trying to prevent her from crashing to the ground.
“That’s my wife” says the man with the big belly. “She is very happy.”
This is religious worship, Hindu stylee.
I am on the island of Penang, Malaysia. And the extreme body piercings are all part of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
With fairground rides, sound systems and men with huge spears through their cheeks, this religious festival is Notting Hill Carnival meets Torture Garden.
Thaipusam commemorates the day when the Hindu goddess Pavarthi gave Lord Muruga, her son, and also the Hindu god of war, a lance with which he destroyed demons. Hence why the bloke in front of me has a spear through his cheeks.
In the car park a cue of people illuminated by the full moon are waiting to be pierced. They are all men. Hooks and skewers is strictly man’s work.
The next fella has chosen to have over a hundred small metal milk pots hung off his chest and back.
Supported by mates on either side, who steady his shoulders and squeeze his hands he looks well out of it. Staring blankly ahead, as the holy man threads the small hooks through his skin, he doesn’t utter a word.
It looks bloody painful but the dad assures me it doesn’t hurt because they are mentally prepared for it. He tells me they have spent the past month by fasting, sleeping on a hard floor and eating only vegetarian food.
“They are in ecstasy. It is amazing.” he says.
Dad should know as he says he used to do it himself althoug now he is content to watch his son do it.
The piercings are just the start of their act of devotion. They will now have to walk over 2 miles, barefoot, to a temple by a waterfall where they will pray and present offerings.
But this isn’t just a festival for the hooked and skewered S&M set, this is a festival for all Hindus who wish to fulfil their vows, and dressed in orange or white cloths they are walking barefoot up the road in their thousands.
Thaipusam is about religious submission and physical endurance. For some that means skewering themselves, but for others it means carrying a physical burden, such as a large ceramic pot filled with milk on their head, or mini chariots (kavadis) made from paper maiche and decorated with gold and peacock feathers, reminiscent of Notting Hill Carnival costumes. One little girl is walking alongside her mother and father, who have milk pots on their heads, carrying a Spongebob Squarepants helium balloon. Whether that is her burden I am unsure.
A bearded man called Vadivelu, who is carrying an elaborate kavadi with a silver structure decorated with coconut shoots, tells me that his participation is purely to show appreciation to his god.
“I do not ask god for anything. All I do is thank him by carrying a kavadi. I believe the deity is like a mother, and a mother knows what to do when a child cries.”
The road to the waterfall is lined with makeshift temporary temples. These pop up temples, covered in colourful neon, and with statues of various Hindu gods are sponsored by international companies, such as Bosch, and local businesses such as Mr Singh’s Car Repairs. Some of them also have large sound systems that are pumping out Bollywood beats, and devotees old and young stop off for a quick dance before continuing their sacrificial walk.
There are a whole range of gods to worship and boogie on down to. There’s the god with the head of an elephant (Ganesh) another with ten arms and riding tigers (Durga), My favourite one is of Kali, a jet black woman wearing studded wrist bands, sitting on a throne, swinging a ball and chain in the air with a paper maiche bottle of Guinness at her feet. She looks like a middle aged alcoholic heavy metal dominatrix who you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Not surprisingly many devotes are stopping and laying small gifts of food and drink at her feet.
The biggest pop up temple is surrounded by a huge pile of rubbish, which on closer inspection proves to be thousands of cartons of milk. The man at the stall next door with the pallets of UHT milk is doing a roaring trade. The God is Shiva. God Numero Uno. The Supreme God, the primary aspect of the divine and also, it seems God of the Tetrapak.
In-between the temporary temples are food stalls where volunteers are handing out food and drink to the devotees. Just like Glastonbury, the air is heavy with the smell of veggie burgers and incense.
As the sun begins to rise, I see the man with a spear through his cheeks striding down the road at quite a pace. Glazed eyes fixed straight ahead, he is ploughing through the crowd. Men and women are scattering in all directions, desperate not to be skewered.
While the human kebab seems to be in a hurry, others are making a day of it. A bloke with a thousand small milk cans hooked on his body is stopping every 100 yards for a dance at one of the disco temples. Surrounded by his proud, non pierced mates, all in Western garb, and one bizarrely wearing a playboy T shirt and sunglasses, he is pulling some wicked dance moves.
They are soon joined by an old man in his 60s in an orange loincloth and a beard down to his waist and a teenage boy with a spear through his cheek and a 100 hooks on his back. Attached to the hooks are 15 foot ribbons. As the kid dances wildly to the beat, a man is holding on to the ribbons trying to restrain him, as if he is a wild stallion.
The song stops and they all move on their way.
Finally 2 miles after they started, the tired but happy devotees arrive at the waterfall temple where a large queue has formed. Thousands shuffle along patiently, pots on head, waiting to climb the 100 steps up to the temple, although the hooked and the skewered get fast tracked down a priority lane, like members of a religious executive club.
After receiving their blessing from the temple priest many celebrate their act of devotion by nipping into the funfair next door for a quick spin on the big wheel or dodgems, although they make sure to remove their piercings first.