Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by the Tamil community in India and by the Tamil diaspora worldwide. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati, the Indian goddess of fertility and love, gave her son, Murugan, the god of war, a spear in order to defeat a fiendish demon. The festival celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. Murugan is considered to be an embodiment of the great god Shiva, and devotees pray to him to overcome the obstacles they face in life.
To outsiders, the Thaipusam is a gruesome spectacle. The devotees of Murugan perform the kavadi attam, the “burden dance,” in which they bring offerings to their god. In the most basic version, they carry a pot of milk to the temple, but often they pierce the skin on their backs with hooks from which they hang milk bottles, some pull large carts. Many also pierce their tongues and cheeks with skewers, reminders of the spear which Parvati gave to her son.
In order to withstand the pain, the devotees engage in all sorts of mind-altering activities — fasting, praying, chanting and drumming. And in order to recuperate once the hooks and skewers have been removed, they rub their wounds with holy ash. Today ambulances are on stand-by during the ceremony, but remarkably few of the devotees need medical attention. The Kavadi attam is an endurance test by which the devotees can demonstrate the power of their faith. Not surprisingly the most demanding feats mainly attract young men, and you do not have to be a Tamil in order to participate.
Calls are periodically made for a ban on the more gruesome aspects of the celebrations. In Singapore, the authorities used to outlaw the playing of music during the procession, but this ban has recently been lifted. During Thaipusam celebrations in the United States, devotees undertake long walks on foot, carrying pots of milk but no piercing or skewering is involved.
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