Devotee at Thaipusam in Penang

It is the most fascinating festival you will ever witness. Thaipusam is a Hindu Festival that happens every January or February.  It is celebrated by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore and Mauritius. But nowhere celebrates it as big as Malaysia.  Celebrated during the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, Thaipusam draws thousands of devotees paying their respects to the Lord Muruga.  It is a colourful and shocking Hindu festival where devotees pierce themselves with pins and spikes, hang pots and fruit off of their chests with hooks and pull chariots or people hanging onto heavy rope attached to their backs by hooks.

hooks in back of devotee at Thaipusam Festival

It is a day of celebration as devotees pray to the Lord Muruga for good luck in the coming year.  They thank him for a wish that was granted this past year or as I read in the paper, for the good grades they received in school.

Shocking Asia, Malaysia’s Thaipusam

The ages range from the very young. Babies have their heads shaves and piercings were as young as a 13 year girl to old men well into their 70′s.  They are offering penance to Lord Muruga for their own and various reasons.  We have had the privilege to experience two Thaipusam Festivals.  Our first was at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur in 2004, our second was Penang’s Celebrations in 2011.

Devotee with spike through cheek at Thaipusam Festival

There weren’t as many people in Penang as there were in Kuala Lumpur.  Over a million people make their way to the Batu Caves where as 20,000 people visit the waterfall temple in Penang.

The festivals are quite different in each city but each as equally shocking.

Devotee pierced with hooks and spikes at Thaipusam

For a first time Thaipusam attendee, we would suggest going to the Batu Caves.  It is far more exciting and energetic.  The crowds are bigger and the devotees are far more outlandish and flamboyant.  At the Batu Caves, people seemed to be in a more crazed state of trance. Their eyes were wild and void of recognition.  The energy is more animalistic and frenzied.

Man with large spike through cheeks at Thaipusam

In Penang, it is more reserved. The crowds are smaller, the devotees are calm and relaxed.  You feel as if you could walk up and talk to them, to ask them how they are feeling. They are in a trance, but seem to be very aware and present at the same time.

As a second time attendee, we enjoyed watching Thaipusam from Penang.

We could walk right up to devotees and take extreme close ups of their faces and backs.  We didn’t have to fight the crowd of a million people to catch a glimpse of a worshipper.  We enjoyed the quieter energy.  The devotees were just as devoted and impressive, there were just fewer and farther in between.

hooks holding pots onto skin at Thaipusam Festival

The pilgrimage route to the temple was shaded by trees and the steps to the top of the temple was shorter and less crowded.

We stood right beside a group from China and watched their handlers take care of their open wounds.  They bathed them with water and guarded the long spikes sticking out of their cheeks.

Chinese Devotee at Thaipusam

We felt that we could study Thaipusam and felt more a part of it rather than the far away observer that we were in Kuala Lumpur.

Man resting during pilgrimage at Thaipusam

While I would never change my first experience of Thaipusam at the Batu Caves, I was grateful to be a part of the procession, the breaking of coconuts for good luck in the year ahead and an up close and personal observer of Amazing Thaipusam in Penang.

Here is our video from 2004. When we get some time 2011 will come out too.

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24 Comments

  1. Melanie

    wow…That must have been really awesome the second time around. I have a question thought. Do they do the same piercings etc each year? Does it get easier for them each year? or do they do all new ones?

    1. davendeb

      I have wondered about that myself. I think that they do as people that have done it for several years use larger hooks and thicker spikes through their cheeks. It seems like the new devotees start of small and than over time they work up to larger items.

  2. Sherry Ott

    This is one of my favorite festivals in the world. I went to the one in Singapore – and it sounds similar to the one in Penang – you could get really close. I would LOVE to go for a 2nd time though as I think I could do better photography the 2nd time around.
    Dave – the photos are absolutely stunning here…bravo!

    1. davendeb

      Sherry, I am so glad that there is another Thaipusam lover out there. You are right, the second time around was much better. We weren’t as intimidated. The first time we thought we were disturbing their concentration. But in essence, they love posing and having people take photos. As you know they make sure to stop when a large crowd is around so that everyone has a chance to watch.

  3. Trisha Miller

    I had a hard time looking at these – so beautiful and yet so painful to imagine (I’m so sensitive to other people’s pain….if you even mention getting a paper cut, I feel it!)….

    Understanding other culture’s festivals is very important to understanding the people….I know there are quite a few cultures that believe that pain = faith, and the greater the pain (or hardship), the greater the faith. So as much as I would never participate, I can admire and respect their tradition. Thanks for sharing these photos!

  4. soultravelers3

    Yikes! I LOVE festivals and we have seen and participated in tons the last 5 years on our open ended family world tour, but this does not look appealing at all. It does produce the kind of photo’s that travel blog readers like, so perhaps we will try it next year as we will be in Penang for several winters while our 10 year old immerses deeply in her Mandarin at an all Chinese school. Looks really painful and truly sad and I am too empathetic not to be bothered by that.

    I am looking much more forward to the HAPPY Chinese New Year celebrations starting this week in Penang which are MUCH more family friendly. ;)

    Sorry we missed you while you dipped in here ( Penang) for a few days to see this. Timing just didn’t work well as kidlet was sick and my 83 year old mother was arriving from California and I know your focus was getting these lovely photos.

    Glad that you enjoyed yourselves!

    1. davendeb

      Yes, too bad we missed you. but I am sure we will meet up somewhere soon. If you get the chance, try to go to Thaipusam next year. We did Chinese New Year in Malaysia a few years ago and it is a very nice holiday.

  5. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Ow ow ow… just looking at these photos makes me cringe in empathy with the physical pain. It’s really great to see this insight into their culture and spiritual traditions, though…. thanks for sharing this experience with us! :)

    1. davendeb

      I am glad you liked it Christy. Apparently they don’t feel anything because of the month of preparations. Fasting and meditating. If I did’t see it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it. But they don’t seem to feel the pain.

  6. Migrationology

    Incredible pictures.
    I’ve never been to this festival in Malaysia, but I’ve seen some of this same type of thing in Thailand at the vegetarian festival. Some of the stuff, like slicing tongues definitely makes me a little squeamish.

    1. davendeb

      Mark I am with you. We watched the people get pierced and nothing bothered me until they stuck the pins and hooks through the tongues. Now that’s gotta hurt.

  7. Audrey

    Really powerful photos. You can feel the emotion from them. What’s amazing is how calm everyone looks in the face of what must be an incredibly painful process with all the hooks and piercings.

    1. davendeb

      So true Audrey. While we were standing on the stairs on the way up to the temple, I was standing right behind a devotee with giant spikes through his cheeks. I examined him and even with all those hooks, spikes and pins in him, he looked completely serene. It was hot and I was uncomfortable enough in the burning sun, let alone standing in the crowd and heat with spikes in my skin. It is amazing.

  8. Priyank

    Hi Dave and Deb,
    This festival is big in South Africa as well due to their Tamil community. Then there’s the catholic festival in the Philippines, and Ashura in Pakistan and Iran that gets bloody and weird like that…. I am a sissy when it comes to even watching these pictures I’ll faint if I see it in person and I’m not kidding (and I’ll be honest, I switched off images on this page..hehe). :-(
    Priyank

  9. Sarah Wu

    Hey Guys,
    What a unique festival that most people won’t able to see. These are really fantastic shots even though those hooks looks painful. : ) You really take beautiful shots!

  10. David @ MalaysiaAsia

    It’s funny how travelers see these festivals in a different light while we locals tend to take it as a normal thing. But it’s good that you highlight some of the fascinating events that happen in each country. As for me, I have been to Batu caves too many times over the many years but never did write about it nor photograph it. Also, when you were here, did you manage to catch the few Caucasians who pierced themselves in devotion? A strange sight but very interesting indeed, especially when they carry the Kavadi. Next time you’re around in KL, look me up for a drink.

    1. debndave Post author

      Very true David, Thaipusam for you would be old hat for sure. For us it is captivating. We never did see the Westerners who pierced themselves. I have heard that there are some that do, but we have yet to see them. However in Penang this year we did see a big contingent from China and that was quite interesting to see.
      We will definitely look you up. This year we didn’t make it to KL but the next time we are back in your part of the world, we will definitely be there! Cheers.

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