A postcard from Singapore IX – a Thaipusam story

January 31, 2008

Growing up I’d hear stories about how some men would stick spikes and tridents into themselves and hang metal hooks off the skin of their backs as they sang and danced fervently, invoking the powers of supernatural beings in their trance-like state. I’d also hear about how some women, similarly decorated, would carry earthen milk pots on their heads as they march off to present their worldly offerings to the gods.

But it wasn’t until recently that I saw it all for myself.

What I witnessed on that morning of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam came close enough to what ran through my mind’s eye as a child, albeit slightly less melodramatic. But standing there with the devotees on their major thanksgiving festival and gradually realizing the significance of the festival for them, transformed what I had once imagined as the stuff of nightmares into a beautiful and visually stunning exhibition of faith, love and sacrifice.

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“I BELIEVE IN GODS”

The sun hadn’t yet come up when I made my way to the temple located in Little India. But it was already teeming with devotees preparing to take part in the Thaipusam procession. It would be a 4.5km march to another temple where they would offer whatever they had brought along literally on their backs to Lord Muruga, one of the sons of Hindu god Shiva.

But you don’t need to be Hindu to join in the procession it seemed. Apparently all you need is what first-time participant Melvin Ho,  a 49-year-old man of Chinese origin, had – “Faith.” Melvin said. “I believe in gods.”

I stood and chatted with Melvin until he was directed by a Hindu friend to pray a little before the friend proceeded to pierce a slender mini trident through the skin of his forehead.

And then more prayers before the friend went on to insert over a dozen metal hooks into the skin of Melvin’s back from which rows of lime would hang. Melvin’s friend, with sweat trickling down his furrowed brow and his hands sporadically giving way to little intense quivers with each piercing, looked more pained than Melvin did.

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And there was still there was more to come. Something else was happening and I had no clue but I could feel the air almost crackling with something like excitement. People were crowding in tighter around the man of the hour and I was caught in the midst of it.

I don’t know if my pictures can do justice to the reality on the ground because everything suddenly built up into a whirlwind of motion: Melvin took sips of milk. People around us started praying out loud. Two men took turns shouting mantras into Melvin’s ears as though forcing the charms into his very being. That state of frenzy continued for as long as it took for a metre-long metal skewer to go through both sides of his cheeks. 

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And for thos electrifying two minutes I was on tip toes, camara glued to my face leaning precariously into the shoulder of the man driving the rod into Melvin’s face. My hands were trembling.

Melvin, on the other hand, took it all like a pro. I wanted to drop my camera and applaud – especially after he turned to look at me and smiled. 

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Or tried to. Having a symbolic trident through his face had effectively fixed everything in place.

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