Getting into Sri Lanka, is pretty easy although the airport is definitely nothing to write home about. So the following conversation occurs while getting into the Hilton Colombo
- <Rishi> I can’t wait to get to the hotel, but slumming it, is the Hilton … bleck
- <D*> Oh stop complaining, it will be fine. We’re not going to be here for very long.
- <Rishi> I guess the drive wasn’t too bad and there isn’t much traffic here at 1AM
- <D*> Yeah, it will be nice to take off my shoes, it’s been a long flight.
<Driver turns on some side road>
- <Rishi> What’s that crowd on the road?
- <D*> … <Locks doors> I think it’s some type ceremony
- <Rishi> This late? Ah well, let’s just be safe … wait … Does that guy have something in his bare back???
- <D*> Holy shits roos … that guy is hanging off the ground only with hooks in his back!!!
- <Rishi> Did we wander off into some National Geographic moment by chance … <mutters> how do we stop the car
- <D*> It might not be safe and although you look like the “everyman”, you don’t speak Sinhalese/Tamil
- <Rishi> Ok fine, but I’m coming back after we drop you off!!!
So of course, in 15 mins, I organize the following things once we arrive at the hotel
- Checks into the hotel
- Finds ATM that will give me a couple Sri Lankan rupees
- Negotiate a price with the driver to take me back to Thaipusam
- Figure out a reasonable price for a whole day trip to Kandy … to see Elephants and Murali’s home stadium
So I get back to the scene of the festival, meanwhile my driver is completely confused and doesn’t really want to go back – since he thinks it’s unsafe. <Note to any traveller – normally you should follow such advice at 2am in a city, you have never been before, but life is short and when you have the opportunity to see and experience something amazing … take it!!!)
So I’m the road and explosions from huge firecrackers are going off and there is tons of smoke in the air. The combination of the smoke, moisture in the air and coming from an air conditioned car plays havoc with my cameras and I am going “apeshit”, since I can’t photograph this all (I should have just been calmer, but too much adrenaline at that point)
So I start walking with the procession and my camera isn’t really cooperating with the zoom lens.
As I learned later on Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community when the Pusam Constellation is in its ascendancy, in the 10th month of the Hindu calendar (Thai) – it’s usually towards the end of January or the beginning of February. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (spear) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. Murugan is the youngest son of Shiva and his wife Parvati.
At it’s most basic, the festival can be considered as a series of devotees carrying Kavadis (or burdens) to seek the favor of a god. Many of the participents can be seen doing just this, carrying offerings of milk on their heads along the procession route. It is a sort of penance, not unlike other forms of penance in other religions.
- Carrying of the cross
- Crucifixation reenactments
However many of the devotees take matters much further and carry highly intricate kavadi’s and many also practice temporary self mutilation by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers. Hence in the videos below, the guys are hanging by hooks in their backs (thankfully they are supported by cloth to holder their full body weight)
Then I’m trying to figure how to follow the procession and not get killed on the other side of the roadway.
Honestly, Thaipusam wins hands down as the most fascinating, spectacular and colourful Hindu festival I’ve ever seen. Devotees perform amazing acts of physical resilience by skewering their bodies with an obscene amount of body piercings and unless I’m back in Malaysia or Singapore for the festival, I’ll probably never see this again.
Here are a couple other great posts on Thaipusam