Buddhism at the hanging rock
On Vesak Day, 2017, my husband and I found ourselves on the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka, home to a population...
Murugan is an unusual god – he is a symbol of youth and vigour and, at the same time, a god of war and a commander of the devas’ army. The son of the goddess Parvati and the god Shiva was born for one purpose only – to destroy the demon Soorapadman. With a spear given by his mother – Vel – he slashed the demon in half. Each half transformed into a bird – a rooster and a peacock. The rooster Murugan chose as his symbol and the peacock as his mount.
This mystical victory over the demon is a central part of the thanksgiving celebration starting in the Tamil month of Thai. When a star Pusam reaches its zenith, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, located in the heart of Little India, begins to shimmer with life. Once the midnight strikes, the festive procession of the devotees, bearing gifts for Murugan will commence here. In the side aisles of the sanctuary, women rush to prepare the first gifts to the deity. Into smaller or larger silver chalices they pour milk, which in turn will be poured over god’s spear – a mystical Vel. Vessels, elaborately decorated with flowers and fruits, will be taken to the Murugan’s place of tribute – located four kilometres away Sri Thendayuthapani Temple.
Other stands in the temple belong to the “piercers.” The men are preparing for lasting almost 20 hours labour, which requires the greatest precision and meticulousness. Their task is to create the Kavadi – the sacrificial burden, which will be carried by devotees to Lord Murugan.
Those, who offered to carry the Kavadi, pray before shrines scattered around the temple. Barefoot, bare-chested, wrapped only in a sarong or waistcloth, they kowtow in deep prayers. Some have their neck adorned with a garland of flowers. Some have their heads shaved. All have the great focus and trance-like determination written all over their faces.
The air is getting heavier with the musky smell of incense and a little sweeter one – of flowers, fruits and oil lamps. In the temple hall, gently brightened with the rays of the rising sun, more and more people are gathering. Families come to support their loved ones, who decided to transform their body into a walking temple. Hired group of drummers, with their rhythmic trance sounds, motivate devotees to make one of the most demanding sacrifices. There are also tourists, attracted by the uniqueness of the event. Shock and disbelief mix with admiration as they look at the shear-chilling scenes happening just in front of them.
With sharp skewers, a man highly skilled in his craft pierces tongue and cheeks of one of the faithful. Thin chains connect the two spikes. As a result, the giver will not be tempted to talk. He will fully focus on his mission of hauling the altar Rath Kavadi. A beautifully decked Murugan’s shrine is attached to the skin on his back with sharp hooks and thick ropes. Engrossed in a prayer trance, he does not even notice when one of the hooks tears from the body. Apart from great focus, there is not a trace of pain on his face. There is not a drop of blood escaping his torn flesh.
Under the temple roof, the sound of the crowd conversations mixes with a rhythmic drumming, piercing treble of clarinets and monotonous prayer chants. With such accompaniment, the procession of devotees sets off along designated route on the streets of Little India. They are greeted with a blinding daylight and an ordinary rhythm of the Lion’s City daily life. With their pierced skin, burdened with Kavadi sacrifices, they seem as if out of this world. Squinting their eyes, still accustomed to the dim temple lights, leg in the leg they walk together. Each according to their capabilities carry their thanksgiving or atoning sacrifice. Sometimes on their own behalf, sometimes on behalf of the loved ones. Lord Murugan welcomes all the offerings alike – whether it is a temple attached to the body with hooks, fruits on tiny spikes hanging from their back, legs and arms, milk containers attached to a wooden pole carried over the shoulders or the humblest ones – silver, decorated with flowers pots of milk, carried by women and children. The commander of the divine army has a blessing to all of them. Just as once he blessed Idumban – a student of the holy sage carrying two hills, who captivated the god with his great perseverance.
Next year, 48 days before Thaipusam, the devotees will again begin to prepare for the sacred celebration. They will fast, sleep on the floor, avoid alcohol and sexual acts, and above all they will pray. And when once again Pusam reaches its zenith, they will set off in a procession to offer temples of their bodies to Lord Murugan.
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.
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