Thaipusam: Hooked in

‘Diary Entry – 23/1/11

I am again sitting on the sofa in the living room of our friends apartment in Marine Drive, Singapore. Thaipusam in Penang was an acute eye opener fo me – the dedication and faith of so many people is something I have not seen the likes of before. On a more superficial level, the most exciting part of the Thaipusam was the smashing of the coconuts, occurring on the last night of the three night festival. This event took us off guard, which made it all the more spectacular, as we watched it grow into something completely unexpected and huge. While I’m still struggling with the religious significance of this act, it did provide a great specticle and activity.’

We returned to Penang about a week and a half after leaving, to watch the spectacular events surrounding the Thaipusam festival. It is a Hindu festival, focussing on self sacrifice, penance, and asking divinity’s favor. Coming from a rather conservative Christian background, this festival fairly took me by suprise. What seems to be the main focus of Thaipusam is the inflicting of pain and suffering on oneself in order to prove your dedication and passion for your request (please correct me if I’m wrong). This involves piercings through the tongues, cheeks, back, and chest. Many also carry immense structures on their heads and shoulders. This forms into a long parade of worshippers and assistants through the heart of the city and up to the main Hindu temple.

A worshiper preparing for the walk.
Worshipper at Thaipusam

We went for three separate trips to the events over the weekend, two of them to the street parade – the second of which was at night, when the already packed streets became a crush, with people climbing over drains and walls to escape. It struck me as like a very odd, inverted Christmas parade, with the sidewalks fenced off for the various stalls and reserved areas, and the crowds contained on the street, to intermingle with the gigantic floats being pulled by trucks and the thousands of worshippers with large piercings through delicate parts of the body, each surrounded in loudly chanting assistants who kept the crowd from pushing in and causing serious damage to the pierced bodies.

Thaipusam Float

The third trip to the event wasn’t actually intended that way – after narrowly escaping the crush by vaulting over the barriers and picking our way through the open drains behind the stalls,  we felt quite sated with our cultural ventures, instead spending our final evening relaxing over a lovely dinner and winding down at a cafe. It was on our way back that we were caught up in more crowds – friendlier this time, all grouping around large piles of coconuts in preparation for a signal to smash the coconuts in the streets. The signal came in the form of a large mobile pagoda being towed down the street by oxen. As the pagoda passed, the coconuts were picked up and thrown, frantically, and as fast as the arms would allow. As fast as it had happened, it suddenly died away, and the street was full of bulldozers zipping around and clearing the street, until about a minute later, the street was clear of coconut shell, and the only signs of the madness were the gutters flooded with coconut milk, and the sweet smell of coconut lingering everywhere.

Smashing Coconuts
Smashing Coconuts at Thaipusam, Penang
Eager Participants in Coconut Smashing at Thaipusam, Penang
Streets of Coconut, Penang
Clean up of the coconuts, Penang

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