Thaipusam Festival: Ritualistic Face and Body Piercing

Kavadis and Rituals Observed During the Tamil Festival of Thaipusam

Worshipper pierced for Thaipusam

Heath Holden / Getty Images

 

The Thaipusam festival is an intense spectacle to witness. Entranced devotees fearlessly pierce their faces and bodies. They carry and drag heavy sleds attached to their bodies with hooks and skewers. As a first-timer watching the Thaipusam festival, prepare to be enthralled and confused—but what's it all about?

Thaipusam (pronounced like "tai-poo-sam") is a frenetic festival celebrated in January or February by many Tamils to honor Lord Murgan, the Hindu god of war and a son of Shiva.

During Thaipusam, Lord Murugan is showered with gifts of gratitude and devotion for prayers answered. A large, chaotic procession moves between temples or shrines. Although Thaipusam is well known for the painful feats of mind-over-matter, not everyone pierces their bodies or bears painful kavadis (burdens). But the volunteers who do make the sacrifice create quite a spectacle. Facial and tongue piercing are common, as are other forms of self mutilation.

The Reason for Thaipusam

Some sects argue that Thaipusam is for celebrating Lord Murugan's birthday, while others claim the birthday to be in May or June during the Vaikhasi month. Regardless, Thaipusam commemorates Lord Murugan's gift of a vel (spear) from his mother, Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love and fertility. Frenzied participants shout "Vel! Vel! Vel!" above the drumming in the procession. According to Hindu belief, Lord Murugan used the spear to defeat the demon Soorapadman.

Worshipers ask Lord Murugan for strength to overcome obstacles they face, whether external or within themselves.

What to Expect

Chanting and drumming fill the air as thousands of devotees form large, noisy processions and march from temples to worship areas. Volunteers are assisted with body piercing and mutilation to show their devotion.

Thaipusam is a public festival. Tourists are allowed to take photos and follow the procession, but keep in mind that some people anticipate Thaipusam all year! Don't get in the way of actual worshipers who are there for religious and personal reasons. Many participants have been preparing themselves for 48 days and fasting without any food for at least 24 hours prior to the festival.

Much like other Hindu festivals, Thaipusam is a colorful, chaotic celebration, but it isn't as messy as Holi!

The Kavadi Attam (Burden Dance)

Thaipusam is most remembered for the handful of worshipers who pierce their faces and bodies with swords, skewers, and hooks. Even walking on burning coals is sometimes a part of the festival.

Heavy, intricate shrines known as kavadis are attached to volunteers with sharp skewers. They symbolize the burdens carried. The largest of the burdens, known as the vel kavadi, requires the person carrying it to be pierced by 108 small spears (vels)!

Sometimes the contraptions are so large and heavy that several men have to offer assistance. The kavadis are then carried through the crowd until finally removed for prayers at a designated place. Other worshipers carry pots of milk, fruit, or grains as offerings to Lord Murgan.

The worshipers who pierce their tongues, cheeks, and faces with sharp objects hardly bleed and report feeling very little pain! Many claim that their wounds heal nearly immediately and don't produce scars.

Before being pierced, devotees are worked into a trance-like state with chanting and drums. Once entranced, the crowd helps to take care of them as they are led through the procession. Tongues are often pierced and pinned through the cheeks as a symbolic gesture of the volunteer giving up the gift of speech.

Where to See Thaipusam

Although the Thaipusam festival is celebrated in India (mainly South India), you can witness it anywhere there is a sizable Tamil community. In Southeast Asia, the largest Thaipusam celebrations take place in Malaysia and Singapore. Thaipusam was once a public holiday in Singapore but was removed along with a few other religious holidays.

Every year, over a million devotees flock to the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. The golden statue of Lord Murugan standing just to the right of the caves is 140 feet tall, the tallest image of him in the world. The Malaysian island of Penang is another place to enjoy a slightly scaled down celebration of Thaipusam. In Indonesia, Medan in North Sumatra, is the place to be for Thaipusam.

Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Fiji have made Thaipusam into a national holiday. Even some of the islands in the Caribbean observe Thaipusam.

For information about experiencing Thaipusam in the United States, contact the Shiva Murugan Temple in Concord, California. They organize a long procession and have kavadis available in exchange for donations.

If watching the Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, you'll need to arrive very early in the morning. Beat the heat of the day and start at sunrise for an authentic experience. Trains to the Batu Caves will be filled to capacity during the day.

Observing Thaipusam

If you want to join a Thaipusam celebration, plan well ahead. transportation and accommodation will be way busier than usual in places such as Kuala Lumpur.

Unless your interest in Thaipusam goes beyond the need for exciting social-media material, stay out of the way! Don't interfere with worshipers to get better photos. People carrying a heavy kavadi piercing their body in dozens of places definitely don't need to get bumped by a pushy tourist. Some of the volunteers are carrying their kavadis in hope that sick loved ones will be healed of chronic diseases.

Although Thaipusam can feel a bit like a body-mutilation circus that spilled into the street, show respect for the religious significance of the festival. It's not a place to goof off or be disrespectful. Dress appropriately, and most of all, don't point horrified at pierced volunteers. The volunteers are honored and respected at the event for their commitment, not treated as sideshow freaks.

Thaipusam isn't the only festival in Asia where worshipers pierce their faces with swords and skewers. The completely unrelated Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Thailand (part of the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival) is another place to see people getting pierced in a frenzy.

Keep an eye on your personal belongings when pushing through the massive throngs gathered in the streets.

Thaipusam Festival Malaysia
 NurPhoto/Getty Images

Rituals During Thaipusam

  • Participants wear yellow and orange, colors significant to Lord Murugan.
  • Flowers and peacock feathers are used to decorate during the festival.
  • Pitchers of milk are carried on the head as offerings.
  • The tongue and cheeks are pierced by two symbolic skewers to show that a pilgrim sacrifices the gift of speech. Many of the pilgrims fast, shave their heads, and walk long distances to be there.
  • Devotees carry kavadis that pierce or stab their bodies. Some pull heavy sleds attached to their bodies with hooks.
  • Before someone can bear a kavadi, they cleanse themselves for 48 days through celibacy, a special diet, and continuous prayer. During this time, they must wash only with cold water. Some people also choose to sleep on the floor.
  • People at the Batu Caves climb the 272 steep steps to the Hindu shrine inside the cave.

When Is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam falls on the day of the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai (unrelated to Thailand). During this time, the star Pusam is at its highest point.

Dates change from year to year because the festival is based on a lunar event; however, Thaipusam always takes place in either January or February.

In 2020, Thaipusam begins on Saturday, February 8.