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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006
New Year's resolution: self-mutilation, a trance and some milk
By AMY CHAVEZ
How's your New Year's resolution progressing? What? You've already forgotten about it! What happened -- not enough determination? Well, I suggest you not tell the Hindu people in Malaysia about how you broke your New Year's resolution. Because unless your resolution involved sticking hooks into your body, putting a skewer through your mouth or piercing your tongue with long metal objects, your resolution pales in comparison.
The Taipusam festival, which this year fell on Feb. 11, is a chance for Hindus to show penance or gratitude (take your pick!) to the gods. It happens every year in the Hindu month of Thai, which coincides with the ascending Pusam constellation. At this time, nearly 1 million people gather at the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur to honor Lord Muruga and to carry out their vows. This year, I made sure I was there.
This Hindu ritual, which is banned in India, is carried out through self-mutilation, trance and milk -- milk because it is believed to promote "satric," or purifying, qualities. Truly a family event, the youngest participants were newborns, and the oldest was a woman with hair so long, she had to tie the end into a bun just above the ground to keep it from dragging. The participants form a long procession that ends at the Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple.
The newborns got off easy, as they were carried by their parents in saffron cradles attached to two long poles of sugar cane, which symbolizes long life. The parents were thanking the gods for giving them the child they had prayed for. But as children get older, their offerings get more burdensome. One 7-year-old girl carried a "paal kudam" milk pot on top of her head to thank the gods for having helped her through years of sickness when she was an infant. Women also carried offerings of pots full of milk. For Hindus, the cow is a symbol of the sanctity of life and earth, and is considered the highest form of gift, since the cow gives much to us (dairy products, farm work, fuel and fertilizer) yet asks for nothing in return. In addition, the cow is seen as a matriarchal figure, since the cow's nature is gentle and she provides nurturing milk. Thus, the cow has an honored place in society as the mother of civilization. Moooo!
As if walking around with up to 2 liters of milk from the mother of civilization on top of your head was not enough, all participants must also carry their loads up 272 steps to the Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple and into a cave. This is where things get tricky, especially for the male participants, who carry very different loads.
A "kavadi" bearer can choose any form of burden he wants. One man made the entire journey, including the 272 steps, on his knees. Others work themselves into a trance, and then pierce their skin with sharp objects, mainly hooks. In a trance, they are oblivious to the pain inflicted upon themselves. One man climbed with dozens of limes attached to his skin via metal hooks. Another wore a metal skewer straight through both his cheeks. Others carry metal cages, like headdresses, decorated with peacock feathers and statues of Hindu gods on them. The bulk of the weight is carried on the shoulders, while the sides of the structures are supported by long pieces of metal attached to the man's body with hooks.
In this mind-over-matter exercise, the devotees are able to endure otherwise unbearable pain. There is not a drop of blood. But still, the task pushes their limits of willpower and strength. Always treading the line between consciousness and unconsciousness, each kavadi bearer has someone as his caretaker, who helps steady him when he loses strength and who is there to keep watch over him should he pass out.
All day and late into the night, the procession continues as tens of thousands of kavadi bearers ascend the steps to the temple. Once at the top, inside the cave, they empty their milk pots and take off their hooks and skewers.
These highly revered kavadi bearers, now at the end of their journey, give blessings. Some were approached by onlookers who touched both of their feet and then themselves. One man was able to receive energy from the kavadi bearer and become electrified from his touch, sending him into a wild trance, only contained by the surrounding people who calmed him down.
Some kavadi bearers also receive ritual blessings -- which often involve swallowing flaming objects -- from enlightened men who sit on the ground.
So, feeling a tad guilty about not fulfilling your New Year's resolution? Don't panic. You can always do what the Hindus who don't want to become kavadi bearers do: shave their heads and have yellow saffron paste smeared on top. How about it?