Pain is bliss for Thaipusam devotees, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Pain is bliss for Thaipusam devotees

Mr Shanmugam Govindarasu still recalls how he felt 26 years ago when he was just 16 and carrying a kavadi (a semi-circular steel and wooden canopy carried by Hindu devotees) for the first time during Thaipusam.

“I had no idea what to expect. During the process, my whole body was numb, the weight on my shoulders was so strenuous. Somehow, my prayers gave me the strength to complete the ritual,” the 42-year-old says in a video by The Straits Times.

Celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai on the confluence of star Pusam, Thaipusam is known as one of the most physically demanding religious festivals in the world. It will be held in Singapore on Jan 25, reported English-language Indian weekly Tabla.

In 2022, Singapore shortlisted this Hindu festival for nomination to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Some 30,000 people, including tourists, attend the festivities every year, including about 250 kavadi bearers and 10,000 devotees carrying milk pots.

Every year, devotees pierce their bodies and carry kavadis – which can be up to 3m high and weigh between 20kg and 30kg – to fulfil their vows and seek the blessings of Lord Murugan, who represents virtue and power and is regarded as the destroyer of evil.

The ritual also requires devotees to pierce their tongues, torsos and lips with hooks and pointed steel rods, and cheeks with vel skewers – a divine spear associated with Lord Murugan.

Kavadi-bearers will then embark on a gruelling barefoot 4km walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road, where they will give their offerings to Lord Murugan. Thaipusam commemorates the deity’s birthday.

The pain borne by the kavadi-bearers can be difficult to witness. But, beneath the exterior, Thaipusam has a quiet and tender meaning of love and loyalty.

Mr S. Ramanathan, in his mid-40s, has also been carrying the kavadi since he was a teenager.

“It’s to follow a spiritual path that was paved by past generations,” he says in the video.

“I start preparing (by fasting and praying) 41 days before the event. That’s the time of change; your mind has to change, all the negative thoughts have to be discarded. The way you eat, the way you think – everything has to be progressively correct before Thaipusam.

“About two weeks before the day, if you’re still not in that state of mind, you’re not going to be ready. And that has happened to me before; the state of my mind was wrong.

“So I made an extra conscious effort the following year to follow the procedure to a tee. Through meditation, I set my mind to focus. That year was fantastic for me. I followed all the guidelines and what was expected of me.”

At least a week before the festival, devotees go on a vegetarian diet to purify themselves. They believe that as long as they adhere to strict fasting and abstinence, they will not feel any pain.

Mr Shanmugam says he refrains from even cutting his nails.

“I normally fast one week before Thaipusam. I’ll go on a vegetarian diet, refrain from shaving, cutting my hair and nails, and I sleep on the floor on a piece of yellow cloth,” he adds. “I’ll go to the temple every day, to meditate and attain peace of mind.”

Regarded as Singapore’s best piercer, Tamilchelvan Suppiah has been piercing the bodies of the devotees for more than 30 years. Now in his 50s, he began performing the sacred and delicate ritual when he was just 15.

“Different devotees have different types of skin. It’s usually more challenging to pierce a devotee who has more hair on his body,” he explains. “It’s easier to pierce someone who sweats more. Oily skin can be difficult, and dry skin too, because it can split when pierced.

“There won’t be any blood when piercing, but some devotees bleed when the piercings are removed, or if they knock into someone or if there is too much movement. But, at most, it’s minor bleeding.”

In the video, amid a small gathering of friends and family members and loud procession music, Mr Ramanathan, with grey ash smeared across his forehead and chest, stands still in the centre of the Perumal temple as the spikes are pierced through his body without a hitch. He is unfazed by the pain, his mind solely focused on Lord Murugan.

“Getting pierced is a transcending experience,” he says. “You are in a full state of meditation, and you have gone to a further level of surrender. I can’t elaborate further, but you do become a little bit different.”

The kavadi bearers’ 4km walk takes around four hours to complete, and by the time they reach the end, the pain and exhaustion can be overwhelming.

For Mr Shanmugam, it is his favourite part of the whole ritual.

“I won’t really dance too much during the procession; I want to reach the Tank Road temple in the fastest time, so that I can see Lord Murugan.,” he says. “My favourite part is when I enter the temple. At the highest point of my prayers, I’m always so energised to see him with my kavadi.”