In Singapore, the Sri Thendayuthapani Hindu temple resonates with the rhythmic music of drums, bells and trance-like chants of the crowd gathered inside. A stunningly sweet smell of milk and incense fills the air. At the temple doorstep, a man dressed in a yellow sarong whirls in an ardent dance.
A metal structure placed on his shoulders heaves and bends to the rhythm of his movements, merging hue of decorative peacock feathers and flowers into a rainbow blur of colours. A frame of the structure disappears in the man’s body with four sharp spikes. Dozens of thinner ones, which have already whipped away, left only tiny punctures on the torso. After a while, the man falls on his knees, reaches an altar of god Murugan and loses himself in profound prayer. The tired face, pierced with sharp needles and streaked with sweat, immediately relaxes in a bliss. After four kilometre-long, exhausting route, the man’s yearly thanksgiving procession came to an end.
‘My name is Kumaravelu, and I’ve been carrying Kavadi for 18 years in the Thaipusam procession’, the same man explains a few days later.
We are sitting in his living room, where numerous figurines of Hindu deities fill shelves of glazed cupboards. Under one of the walls, there is an altar richly decorated with flowers, incenses and oil lamps. A man looks up from the photography in its centre.
‘This is my dad who introduced me to the Thaipusam ceremonial. He used to carry Kavadi himself, but he stopped before I was born. Since my childhood, he was taking me to the Thaipusam procession and explained the meaning of everything: every rite, every ritual, every prayer.’
‘The first Kavadi in my life which I carried during Thaipusam, was in his intention. I was eighteen then. Dad got a heart attack and went to the hospital. I promised God Murugan that I would wear Kavadi for his health in sacrifice.’
‘A few years later, my father died, and I was faced with the decision whether to continue what I was doing or not. Faith in Murugan and traditions inculcated by my father were so strong that I decided to follow them. And I’ve been doing it until this moment.’
The Thaipusam, Murugan and Kavadi – what is behind these exotically sounding names?
Murugan is one of the gods in Hinduism – a symbol of youth and vigour, but also a deity of war and commander of the heavenly army. God Shiva called him to life for one purpose only – to annihilate the demon Soorapadman, who harassed and tortured the celestial beings. Murugan, with a spear – Vel – given by Parvati, disassembled the demon in half. From both parts of the demonic entity, birds were created – rooster and peacock. Murugan chose the rooster as his sign and the peacock for his mount. The Thaipusam is a festival commemorating the day when Parvati gave her son the Vel – his weapon of choice. It falls on the Tamil month of Thai when the star Pusam reaches its zenith. Kavadi, on the other hand, is a physical burden which the followers of Murugan carry in Thaipusam procession. This physical aspect is the culmination of multi-week, meticulous spiritual preparations.
‘I start to prepare myself mentally for 21 days before the procession’, explains Kumar.
‘I start to fast. I do not take any meat meal. I pray and meditate every day. I try to avoid all the luxuries: I sleep on the floor, avoid alcohol, sex. I refrain from getting angry and using vulgar, aggressive words. I also stop watching TV and listening to the radio, and if so, it’s just devotional movies and songs. All this to focus my mind only on God and the upcoming procession.’
‘At the same time, the whole house is thoroughly cleaned up. Only then, all the components of my Kavadi are taken out, and their preparation begins: tightening screws, changing decorations, and most importantly – sharpening the skewers that go through the body’.
A few days earlier, on the day of the procession, early in the morning I meet with Kumar in a large tent near the temple of Sri Srinivasa Perumal – the starting point of the Thaipusam procession.
It is still dark. Singapore starts to lazily open the eyes in preparation for a day as every day. Streets immersed in the yellow light of streetlamps are yet quiet and empty. Only a few passer-byes, hurrying for an insanely early shift, glance curiously at the pile of mysterious metal lying in the tent.
The arched, tin cross-shaped frame is Kavadi’s primary support. It will be accompanied by a decorative element surrounding the mini-shrine of the deity, which Kumar chose to carry to the end temple – Sri Thendayuthapani. Next to the frame, in a somewhat inconspicuous looking long bag, lie several dozens of sharp skewers. Each of them will pierce Kumar’s body.
When Kumar’s “support group” arrives – the closest family and friends who will help to assemble the Kavadi and accompany him during the procession – components of the burden are transferred to the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple.
The scenes taking place under its roof are in complete contrast to the sleepy city outside.
Musical groups, hired specially for Thaipusam, are cheering the procession participants with drums and bells. A crowd of people squeezes between them. Everyone is meticulously bearing in mind their goal: helping in Kavadi assembly, hurrying with the blessings, preparing sacrificial milk, minding designated time slots for participants. Tourists squeeze between them trying to capture the best Instagram shot. The heavy and aromatic scent of incense hovers over the never-ending crowd.
Under one of the walls, we find a small square of free space. Kumar’s “entourage” immediately rushes to the final preparations. In a blink of an eye, a folding table appears where items making up the Kavadi are spread: symbolic fruits, sacred ash, ankle bells and spikes that pierce the carrier’s body. There are also silver milk containers, which Kumar carefully censes and fills with white liquid.
‘In Hinduism, a cow is considered a sacred animal’, he explains, ‘that’s why cow’s milk also has a special meaning. It is the most pristine liquid symbolising the pure heart and unblemished intentions. Therefore it is brought as a gift to the final temple. Drinking it cleanses both the body and the soul.’
Next to the vessels with milk, at the very edge of the table, there is a pair of wooden “slippers”. Their top, instead of soft padding, is full of sharp nails.
‘These are the “Idumban’s slippers”’, Kumar explains further. ‘They are a symbol of the way I undertake. Their name comes from the first follower of Murugan, who carried Kavadi.’
According to a legend, Idumban was a student of the holy sage. He was instructed to move two hills to southern India. To accomplish this, Idumban hooked them on a wooden stake that he placed on his shoulders. Tired by his task, he stopped to rest near the Palani mountains – a place that Murugan had chosen as his residency. After the stoppage, Idumban discovered that he could not lift the hills again. It turned out that Murugan himself, in the form of a child, prevented him from doing so. Idumban, not recognizing God, attacked him only to be ignominiously defeated. However, appreciating sacrifice and steadfastness in pursuing the goal, God in his generosity not only spared Idumban but blessed him and promised a blessing to anyone who would make a similar sacrifice to Murugan.
‘Slippers in which Idumban walked gradually filled with stones, and they start to hurt him. Slippers became uncomfortable. That is why their today’s equivalent is spiked with nails. For me it also helps in concentrating on the final goal’, concludes Kumar.
Kumar and the components of his Kavadi are subjects to a complicated process of blessing. Each member of the “support group” has a unique role to play in it. Everything is done in perfect order and synchronisation. Everyone knows their role and fulfils it with an anointed respect towards Kumar who today becomes the embodiment of the deity.
When the ceremonies are over, the time comes for the most spectacular but also chilling part of the final preparations. Kumar is joined by “the piercers”.
‘People who pierce for me are already proven people who I know. Most often it is a family or the closest friends. Certainly, those who once carried the Kavadi themselves and know exactly how to stretch and pierce the skin, at what angle the spike should enter, etc. It can be said that there is a whole science behind it’, laughs Kumar.
‘Confidence in the piercing has not only a physical aspect. It is important for the mental well-being to know that the procedure will be done well, that I can count on those people I give my body to. It brings a great psychological comfort and peace of mind.’
Looking at the piercing, I am – as an observer – very far from the peace of mind.
The first needle punctures the skin in the middle of Kumar’s forehead. The man does not even flinch. The one that goes through both cheeks causes Kumar’s eyes to close and roll back involuntarily for a fraction of a second. I nearly faint. The last of the smallest needles pierce the tongue.
‘The one in the middle of the forehead is the point of concentration. Even during meditation, Hindus focus on this point. The needle in the cheeks is a sign of refraining from food, and the one in the tongue is to prevent the use of bad, wicked speech’, a few days after the procession Kumar will explain.
Finally, the moment comes to “install” the proper Kavadi. The piercers carefully choose points around the waist through which they will put through the Kavadi frames. Piercer, grabbing a thick wad of skin, pushes through it a pointed end and quickly screw on the fixing bolt. The process is repeated four times: twice on the stomach, twice on the back. Only once, Kumar’s lips open in an almost soundless sigh of pain. Through each arch of the frame, the piercers pull a thin skewer. The end of each disappears in the Kumar’s body – his torso and back. Spikes are arranged in a kind of plait – a metal braid blended with the skin. Not a drop of blood escapes the pierced flesh.
Finally, the Kavadi is crowned with the last element – a beautiful plume that surrounds the central altar adorned with flowers.
Thirty kilograms of construction lays its weight only on sharp spikes sunk in the flesh.
‘Skewers piercing the body are a sign of my love for Lord Murugan’, explains Kumar. ‘God does not require it from me. Nevertheless, like to my beloved person, I want to show my love and dedication in a special way. It is my way. Murugan will be happy with every sacrifice according to the devotee’s abilities. What is the most important is a pure intention.’
And indeed, the whole Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple is full of unique Kavadi. Some are in the form of a wooden bar with milk pots hanging at both ends – today’s equivalent of “Idumban’s Kavadi”, where containers with white liquid have replaced the mountains. Others have a form of wooden arches carried across the shoulders. There are also limes, or little containers with milk attached to the skin of the back, legs or torso of the carrier with small hooks. Others, the most amazing and spectacular, resemble Kumar’s Kavadi. Some push even further and take the form of altars on wheels attached to the back of the donor with sharp-ended hooks. But there are also the simplest ones – single milk chalices, usually carried by women and sometimes even children. All richly decorated with flowers and peacock feathers. Each of them – whether modest or shouting with extravagance – is pleasant to Murugan. Because what counts for him is the intention, which should be as pure as milk carried in every burden – a symbol of an innocent heart and sincere love for a deity.
Looking at this extraordinary manifestation of love and devotion, I am filled with sincere admiration for every Murugan’s devotee. However, I cannot help but wonder why mortifying the body? After all, Kumar himself admitted that what counts is the intention. God does not require anything else. Wouldn’t honest, heartfelt prayer be enough?
‘Yes, definitely yes. – admits Kumar, ‘But for me, no prayer, no meditation equals to this feeling of the bliss that I feel when I pass the threshold of the end temple.’
And indeed, there is no better testimony than Kumar’s glowing face when he reaches his final goal; when he crosses the thresholds of the Sri Thendayuthapani temple and offers his burden to Murugan. The exhausting four-kilometre long procession in the glare of the Singapore sun, feet burnt with the hot asphalt, aching muscles and cramped legs are nothing compared to the joy of being able to show the profound love to God.
And that’s why on the threshold of the temple sounding with the rhythmic music of drums, where, in the air, there is a stunningly sweet smell of milk, flowers and incense, a man dressed in a yellow sarong whirls in an ardent dance.
‘There is this saying: “Every hill belongs to Lord Murugan.” For me, this is the quintessence of life. Life is a difficult process, so when you climb up and take the challenges as they come and when you reach the final goal it is where you’ll find bliss. It is the life.’
Know before you go
The celebration of Thaipusam starts just after midnight. With every passing hour, there are more and more devotees – whether carrying their burdens Kavadi, or accompanying their families. Observers are welcome to the event, as long as they respect a space designated for the faithful and their preparation for the procession. It’s best to appear in the temple early in the morning. The ideal time is roughly between 6:30 – 7:00, before the crowds start to gather. The day is also much cooler in the early hours. With the sun rising in the sky, the temperature is also rising inside and outside, making it more challenging to make your way around the temple.
An important note – as always, entry to the temple is only barefoot. Try to remember the place where you left your shoes outside, as there will be a lot of them around.
The beginning of the procession and preparation:
Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple
397 Serangoon Road,
The nearest MRT station – Farrer Park
Because of the preparation for the procession, the main gate of the temple may not be accessible to the public. An alternative option is to find the side entry. Stay on the lookout for signs leading the way along the road.
The end of the procession and submission of the Kavadi:
Temple Sri Thendayuthapani
15 Tank Road,
The nearest MRT station – Dhoby Ghaut (10 min.)
Thaipusam falls at the turn of January and February.
Admission to the temples and procession observance are free.