Thaipusam is my favourite festival to shoot in Singapore. Thaipusam is a combination of the name of the Tamil month of “Thai”, and the name of a star, “Pusam” which is at its highest point during the festival (source: www.thaipusam.sg). It is a festival to honour Lord Murugan–the Hindu god of war and a son of Shiva.
Thaipusam is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of “Thai” and dates change from year to year but it always takes place in January or February. The festival is one of an incomparable manifestation of devotion. Hindu devotees carry a burden (kavadi) and undergo piercings into their body, face and tongue. The carrying of the kavadi could be for different reasons, such as to avert or tide over a calamity or grave illness of the devotee or a close relative. The festival is really one of thanksgiving and a day for devotees to celebrate the fulfillment of their vows. Lord Murugan is showered with gratitude and gifts of devotion for prayers answered. Beautiful food offerings are laid out.
Devotees have their kavadis set up at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple (“SSPT”) in Little India through a very elaborate and detailed process, especially where the full kavadi involves the different piercings. The kavadi is to be carried on a 4km processional walk from SSPT to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road.
I started shooting Thaipusam in 2013. In 2015, I shot many devotees at SSPT at various stages of their preparation for the carrying of the kavadi but one devotee that stood out was Ram. I did not know his name at the time but I remembered the splashes of turmeric in his hair, distinctive Maori-like tattooed patterns down his back and his occasional slightly cheeky smile to his friends and supporters; but most of all, he had such a positive energy and aura about him.
I didn’t see Ram again till Thaipusam this year. I really wanted to speak to Ram to say that I had taken all these images of him at one of the earlier Thaipusam festivals but then again I thought it best not to disturb him while he was preparing himself for this year’s kavadi. Ram had many friends who had come to support him; I spoke to one of them and found out Ram’s name. There was a Chinese lady, Daphne, close to Ram whom I discovered is Ram’s wife. I spoke to Daphne, introduced myself and said I wanted to give Ram the images I’d taken of him at an earlier Thaipusam festival. We exchanged numbers and several days after Thaipusam I contacted Daphne so that I could send Ram photos from the Thaipusam 2015 and 2019 festivals. I also wanted to know if Ram would be amenable to me doing a blog post on him, which he very kindly agreed to. I have been taking images for quite a few years at Thaipusam and had many unanswered questions. I never had the opportunity or guts to speak to any of the devotees, mainly because every devotee always looked so much ‘in the zone’ and I didn’t want to be distracting them with my questions. So, a huge thank you to Ram for being so patient with the many questions I emailed him and for his answers which have helped me understand Thaipusam much more. Below is a summary of what I learnt from Ram’s answers:
What sort of physical, mental and spiritual preparation takes place? Thaipusam involves asceticism—Devotees like Ram physically prepare for Thaipusam by fasting for 48 days (one mandala) before Thaipusam, having only one vegan meal a day, taking cold baths and sleeping on the floor. The physical preparation is combined with mental and spiritual preparation of meditation and controlling one’s thoughts, actions and speech. This is to purge the body of all physical and mental impurities.
Why is there no blood when the long needles are inserted into the body and a skewer is pierced across the cheeks and tongue? Ram explained that the fasting conditions his mind and body and it is a Yogic form of preparation. Anyone who has witnessed this stage of the preparation up close will understand why I have always found this one of the most amazing aspects of Thaipusam.
How do the devotees not feel any pain? Does the chanting that accompanies the insertion of needles and skewers help devotees enter into a higher spiritual realm such that devotees do not feel the pain? My question and assumption was totally flawed because, as Ram told me, the devotees feel everything. They are in a state of meditation that helps them accept the pain. Chanting is only one aspect of what the devotees experience; sight, taste, smell, feeling and mindfulness are among the other experiences. I was really glad to have learnt, after all these years, how totally wrong I was. It certainly exacerbated my feelings of wonder, respect and amazement for all that the devotees undergo.
I was curious to know what the chants meant–Ram advised that they are very diverse but predominantly centre around praise for the Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva, and the devotees’ servitude to him.
When the devotees walk the 4km processional route from SSPT to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (“SST”) in Tank Road, they are in a constant state of meditation. Musical instruments, singing and chanting accompanies some devotees. Thaipusam commemorates Lord Murugan’s gift of a vel (spear) from his mother, Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love and fertility. Participants often shout “vel!vel!vel!” above the drumming in the procession.
I asked Ram what he felt as he drew closer to SST–happiness, a sense of achievement of fulfilling the vow to carry the kavadi? Ram’s reply was that it wasn’t just the fulfilment of a vow or sense of achievement, rather the greater feeling of actually seeing the rites completed at SST.
The people assisting with the piercings all seem very experienced. Do they undergo special training to perform this very special task? Anyone who has witnessed the setting up of the kavadi and the piercings into the body will agree that it is a highly skilled task, much like an artisan’s work. I see beauty in the pattern that emerges when the needles are aligned in a particular fashion. Ram explained that their expertise comes from years of practice and many of them have carried a kavadi in the past. The piercers also undergo the same ascetic preparation as the devotees carrying the kavadi.
Ram’s Remarkable Journey
Ram started participating in Thaipusam 6 years ago; this year he had not just the full kavadi but also a beautiful chariot attached to his back with hooks. The chariot and kavadi had participated in Thaipusam for 55 years and had been passed down to Ram from his late uncle. It really is a beautiful chariot with two lovely white horses in the front and a statue of Lord Murugan inside the chariot. Here are some photos of the chariot, with Ram passing a fire over and around the chariot to bless it.
Ram before the commencement of the piercings
Ram’s accident in June 2015
After making contact with Ram post-Thaipusam this year, he shared with me that he met with a very bad accident when he was riding his bike in June 2015. His bike was totally crushed and Ram broke his neck and hip. He describes it as a ‘life or death accident’–the photos (below) that Ram shared with me speak for themselves. Ram was hospitalised for a month and totally immobile. Three months after that, Ram had to learn how to walk again and articulate his limbs. He explained that what really motivated him to walk again was partly his fear that he would be breaking the then 52 year family tradition of completing the processional walk during Thaipusam. Ram had taken over from his uncle the responsibility of taking part in Thaipusam 7 years ago.
Amazingly, in January 2016, Ram managed to participate in Thaipusam again. Ram’s determination and faith enabled him to complete the 4km processional walk, wearing the spiked slippers, in what he describes as his toughest walk. No kidding!!!(Photos courtesy of Ram)
On the day of Thaipusam, I was in awe that Ram managed to carry not just a full kavadi but to drag the chariot. I recently learnt from Ram that the kavadi is vintage and that no one carries this type of kavadi anymore. The procedure of setting up Ram’s kavadi is more complex than for most other kavadis. In his case, the altar (structure on top of the cage) was placed above Ram’s head before the piercings began. Having that extra weight at the outset makes the process more taxing for the piercers and for Ram.
The piercers take a lot of effort and care with Ram and the setting up procedure.With most kavadis, Ram explained that the altar is fitted last, on top of the cage, at the end of the piercings, to alleviate the impending physical toll on the devotee. It was the first time in my years of shooting Thaipusam that I had seen a devotee carry a kavadi and chariot . And that was before I knew of Ram’s accident. Knowing the back story now as I write this post, I am even more amazed by what Ram has managed to do since his accident. I sensed very early on while photographing Ram that he was special, someone that the piercers clearly cared about greatly. The nuances of tender caring and support for Ram are evident from these photos.
I feel fortunate to have been able to ‘journey’ a little of the way with Ram, to be able to understand Thaipusam far better now but most of all, to be humbled by his strong faith, determination and devotion to overcome his physical adversities. To end this post, here are some photos from when Ram left SSPT and finished his processional walk at STT in Tank Road.
Completion of the processional walk at SST in Tank Road
Thank you Ram for sharing your Thaipusam journey with me!