Somehow this journey has felt different from the beginning. Maybe it’s because of the way it came about. Sitting across from my parents pitching a weak plan of moving to Tahoe for the winter, only to have my mom tell me that she thought it was a bad idea. “Do you have money to travel?” she asked. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. I wondered aloud if a role-reversal had taken place, especially as my dad offered his support for her idea. My life has always been one of unique blessings, but in that moment, I realized exactly why I am able to lead the life I have always dreamed. Because all that I am and all that I have are thanks to the two most incredible people I have ever known- my parents.

Before that meal was even finished, I knew where life would take me next. For as long as I have traveled, I have heard stories of India (both the good and bad) and anticipated the day that I would finally step foot in the world’s most fascinating country. I knew that it was a journey that would test me in every way- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually- and I wanted to be prepared for that. Now, the timing was just perfect. With my friend Arick living and working in India and suggesting I visit, and a National Geographic in front of me filled with pictures that stirred my traveling soul, I booked a one-way flight to India only 2 weeks after my mom’s suggestion and haven’t for one moment doubted that decision.

The beauty of travel is often the unexpected. Guidebooks can only create a rough picture and one’s expectations of a place will almost always be challenged upon arrival. So when I secured a 3-day layover in Singapore en route to India, I was open to whatever experience awaited me. Yet, I never expected that in my first 24 hours in Singapore, I would be thrust head-first into one of the most intense and awe-inspiring spectacles I have ever witnessed.

After 20 hours in the air, one would expect some hint of jet-lag. But traveling is all about living the moment, and when I heard that the Thaipusam Festival would be beginning around midnight and lasting until the following morning, I knew that sleep would have to be saved for another time. I began the night with an incredible view of Singapore from the bar at the 70th Floor of the Swiss Hotel where a new friend and I drank over-priced drinks and laughed for hours as we shared the dance floor with travelers, ex-pats and Singapore’s upper class. Returning to our hostel in Little India, we saw that the neighborhood was fully alive, even after midnight. All along the streets vendors were threading jasmine flowers and chrysanthemum onto elaborate garlands while devotees filed down the roadside carrying jugs of milk upon their heads. All were Indians, dressed in colorful saris ad traditional clothing, and they were the first of thousands I would see over the next 24 hours. I stood at the side of the road and watched as a steady procession of devotees made the 4km walk through downtown Singapore.

All night and day the marching would continue; this was just the beginning.  Devotees of Lord Subramaniam believe that Thaipusam is the day when the Lord was given the vel (divine spear) by his mother, Parvati, to defeat Surapadman, a demonic being. Lord Subramaniam is worshipped as the granter of wishes and those who wish to ask for a favor or give thanks for one received participate in the festival.

In Singapore, on the day of Thaipusam, devotees fulfill their vows by completing a 4km walk from between two temples during which they carry pots of milk on their heads or kavadis with smaller pots of milk attached. This milk is presented as an offering upon completion of the walk.

The carrying of kavadis (semi-circular metal and wooden structures) is a unique feature of Thaipusam. This act represents the offerings of one’s burden to Lord Subramaniam. It is believed that the more effort and hardship experienced when carrying the kavadi, the more generous Lord Subramaniam will be in fulfilling devotees’ wishes.

The Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple is the starting point of the march where devotees wash their feet ceremoniously before beginning the walk and also where the preparation of kavadis takes place. I entered the temple with my new friend Sarah, happy to have her company amidst the swirling energy of the place. Drums were pounding, whistles blowing, men and women cheering, singing and chanting prayers while tourists whispered to one another in awe.

Sarah and I wandered through the temple observing a scene that would impress even the most skeptical persons. The room was packed and the scent of incense and perspiration filled the temple and bombarded the senses. A sea of dark faces filled the room amidst 20 or more towering structures that were scattered about the temple, each decorated in elaborate fashion with peacock feathers, flower garlands, gods and goddess statues, umbrellas and ringing bells. Some bore swastikas (one was covered in fuzzy blue and white ones) and another carried a model tiger on which a goddess rode. Others flash with twinkling lights and all were connected to the carrier’s body using metal hooks and spikes.

As we threaded our way through a sea of bodies and clouds of incense, my eyes scanned the spectacle and tried to take it all that was happening around me. I imagined the many hours that this temple had been filled with devotees washing, praying and preparing kavadis. These large metal structures were assembled individually by families and each was unique. We watched as they connected the pieces and made finishing touches to the metal structures that stood on their own. When viewed alone, it was difficult to believe that a single man could bear the weight alone. Made almost entirely of metal, the kavadis stood over ten feet tall (some much more) and at least five feet in diameter.

The process of placing kavadis onto the body began by the wrapping of a belt around support the weight of the kavadi, time and time again smoothing the belt flat and wrapping it around the carrier’s waist until it was so tight their chests bulged above the constriction. Four long metal rods attached to the belt and protruded from the front, back, and sides, perpendicular to the body and extending several feet in 4 directions. These would serve to carry a portion of the weight while the rest was supported on their shoulders.

At the end of each metal road protruding from the waist belt there was a flexible metal piece that arced vertically and connected to the bottom layer of the kavadi creating a semi-circular metal structure that encompassed the carrier like a giant metal halo. This was the support system for the multi-layered kavadi that towered high above the carrier’s head. Most kavadis were built with several layers like a wedding cake where each layer gets progressively smaller. The first (and lowest) layer is as wide as the rods that extend from the belt. In many cases, this layer was built with decorative panels that flop up and down in unison with the carrier’s steps and the jingling of bells fastened to their calves or ankles, making the kavadi an auditory (as well as visual) treat. The panels were decorated with pictures of Hindu gods surrounded by peacock feathers that fanned the air as the panels feel forward and back again. Gold trinkets also hung from the panels and jingled along with the bells.

The sheer size and weight of the kavadis made the scene impressive enough, but that is not the only hardship the carrier would endure that day. With the kavadi in place, friends and family began the process of attaching the metal structure to the body. Strings of beads hung from the metal structure and were connected to the body with metal hooks on the end, much like fishhooks. The carrier stood strong and proud and showed no sign of pain as the hooks were threaded through the skin of their back. Then long, straight metal rods were put in place one at a time, slipped through holes in the kavadi support and then through the skin of their chest, sides and back. All of this was done by family members, as the women held boxes of metals rods and men pierced them though the skin. For with each rod that penetrated the carrier’s body, the more generous Lord Subramaniam will be in granting his family’s wishes.

The final stage of preparation involved the piercing of the tongue and cheeks. We watched as the carriers stood stone-faced, mouths open, and a thick metal rod pierced one of their cheeks and then the other. There was no blood, even very little pain so far as we could tell, even as the last rod was pushed through the bottom of their tongue and out the top. The scene was made even more intense by the friends and family who supported the carrier, dancing around him wildly, singing loudly and chanting prayers, building into a deafening crescendo as the mouth and tongue were pierced. The circle of energy that surrounded and encouraged the carrier was undeniable, and in fact, crucial to the hardship he must endure. For once the kavadi was fully in place, these supporters would follow the carrier every bit of the 4km and serve as an integral support system, crucial to his success.

One such group I followed nearly the entire length of the walk. I had been running up and down the streets, photographing the procession of believers and kavadi-carriers that lasted nearly 24 hours. Each was unique in their own style and memorable for different reasons. But one group was able to steal my attention from all the rest.

This carrier showed no sing of pain or discomfort as he carried this giant metal structure upon his body. He was young and almost over-confident, going so far as to stop for pictures, posing for tourists with a thumbs-up, despite the many rods and hooks that pierced his lean, fit body. He was encouraged by an exuberant group of young followers, girls who chanted prayers and sang songs over megaphones and men who danced around him and kept others at a safe distance. At times the carrier would break into wild dances, his body gyrating as he lunged back and forth upon his toes and spun in dizzying circles, all the while managing the kavadi that stood tall upon his body.

As I returned to my hostel and attempted to digest all that I had experienced in the first 24 hours of this journey, I realized that this truly was just the beginning. For the spiritual dedication and intensity that I saw at Thaipusam will be repeated time and time again as this journey takes me deep into the heart of India. I have been here in India for 2 days now and have already seen and experienced things that will take time to process in my own life, and definitely some time before I can share fully with others. I look forward to the experiences that await me and I hope that I can find the words to describe the amazing things I see and the impact it has on my own life. And hopefully those descriptions will touch your own lives, much as I hope this story of Thaipusam already has.

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