Saturday, February 2, 2008

Thaipusam, Batu Caves, Malyasia

Thaipusam, 1986

It is hard to explain the sights, sounds and smells of a Hindu festival. There aren’t events in this country, especially in Wellsville, to compare them with. One particularly unusual festival is Thaipusm. Hindus practice the world’s oldest religion and share a body of cultural practices and beliefs with about a billion people. A million or so of them participate in Thaipusam Malaysia at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur.

The basic idea is that petitioners who feel that the gods have granted their wishes climb the steps of the Batu Caves temple as an expression of thanks. Many climb up with a kavadi (a sort of small shrine), chariots and/or pails of milk, some of which are connected to the body of the devotee with wire hooks or spears.

Others pierce their tongues or cheeks with metal shafts of various sizes from small and delicate to large and imposing. I’ve a photo of a man walking along the path to the caves while Jay and I were standing on the sides watching. We didn’t actually notice him at first. Some other, more dramatic scene distracted us, and Jay waved his arms as this man bent forward to receive the blessing of the person next to us. That was when Jay hit his skewer.

I started to stammer an apology, pulling little Jay close to me, hoping that Jay hadn’t injured the man. After all, this rod, the diameter of a pencil and about 2 feet long, pierced through one cheek and out the other and Jay had smacked it. The man smiled at Jay. People often smiled at Jay in Malaysia. His little pink cheeks, blue eyes and blonde hair, all unusual among these dark toned people, fascinated them.

The man patted Jay on the head and smiled. He held out his alms jar and we put money in it. I held my camera and he nodded permission for a photo after which he bowed to us and walked onward.

While he was near, we could see that the skewer truly went through his skin. When he spoke we could see it in his mouth, disrupting the movement of his tongue. There was no pain, no blood, no stress. This was a man who was proud of what he was doing, who viewed his religion as a part of his life, a part of his body.

We found the man again as he left the temple. He had no marks on his face, just a bit of the sacred ash that the priest applied when he removed the skewer at the altar. The smell of camphor was all around him and he seemed at peace.
Nobody bled, not where fish hooks stretched their skin as they pulled against heavy chains, not where skewers pierced their mouths. There was no swelling, no redness, no pain, not even a dent in the skin when these devices were removed.

I worried about how Jay saw things. He was just six and this was a pretty intense experience so I scrunched down and asked him what he thought of the whole scene. He looked around thinking and watching for just a bit and spoke with wisdom.

“I think these people love their god so much that they are willing to do anything but he loves them so much that he won’t let it hurt.”

That’s how I’ve seen Thaipusam ever since.

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