Faith-based body piercing in Southeast Asia

January 23, 2008

A Hindu devotee adjusts her cheek skewer before a procession, 22 Jan 2008/Matthew LeeIn the “one picture worth 1,000 words” category, check out Sulastri Osman’s feature on a Singapore festival of body-piercing in honour of the Hindu god Shiva’s youngest son, Lord Murugan. “They believe the piercings will leave no scars and they will feel no pain, .protected from bodily harm by the strict regime of abstinence, piety and vegetarianism they follow for a month before the festival,” she writes.


Melvin Ho has his cheeks pierced with a skewer, 22 Jan 2008/Matthew LeeMelvin Ho (right), a first-time participant in the Thaipusam festival, said the motivation for the piercing is simple. “I believe in gods,” the 49-year-old man of Chinese origin said, minutes before a friend inserted a meter-long metal skewer through his cheeks.

The man who pierced Ho appeared to feel more pain than he did, grimacing as he pushed the skewer through his friend’s flesh.


Hooks to pull a portable altar are skewered to the back of a Hindu devotee, 22 Jan 2008/Matthew Lee

The women with pierced cheeks and men sporting hooks and skewers all over their bare chests and backs carry wooden kavadis, or portable altars, for 4-1/2 kilometers (three miles) to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple where the procession ends.

Marching alongside Ho, his friend carried a ceremonial milk pot, while an estimated crowd of 50,000 families, friends and onlookers prayed and chanted.


A Hindu devotee has his chest pierced with skewers, 22 Jan 2008/Matthew LeeThe procession ends with devotees making offerings and pouring pots of milk over a statue of the merciful Murugan, one of hundreds of gods who populate the colorful Hindu pantheon.

Body-piercing is not restricted to Hindus. Chinese Buddhists practice it too.


A devotee at the vegetarian festival in Phuket, Thailand, 20 Oct 2006/Adrees Latif Not too far north of the Singapore festival, on the Thai resort island of Phuket, the annual vegetarian festival has the same kind of procession with skewers. This must be the result of a mix of traditions. One of the devotees at last year’s festival is shown at left. Note the dazed look in his eyes.



Thai-Chinese devotee with rods through his cheeks at Phuket’s vegetarian festival, 7 Oct 2005/Sukree SukplangCovering the Phuket festival in 1987, I couldn’t believe how they could do it. “The skewers drew little or no blood and the dazed men and women appeared to be in no pain,” my feature said. “At the end of the procession, after friends gingerly removed the skewers, the devotees fell into convulsions and then fainted. When ‘the gods’ left their bodies, they got up and walked away.”

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see