Last Friday was the culmination of Thaipusam. I attended from 11:30 p.m. Thursday night until 4:30 a.m. Friday morning at the Sri Srinavasa Perumal Temple in Singapore. This is the second year I’ve attended, and I’ve come to realize (and anticipate) that I’m going to have a long relationship with Thaipusam, spanning as many years as I end up living in Singapore. By that I mean Thaipusam is so fascinating and riveting that I can’t foresee not wanting to go every time it happens. Understanding Thaipusam requires it. It’s a long event, culminating in head shaving, praying, chanting, piercing and walking between two local Hindu temples. Two years on, I barely know the sequence of events or significance of the rituals and implements involved. What I know for sure is that few events in world culture and faith display so much color, fervor and unwavering focus in the midst of pain and discomfort.
Thaipusam is not a happy event, but it’s not a sad event either. It’s an event of deep devotion and personal faith. Last year I was wary of arriving at the temple with my camera, shy to point my lens at the incredulous things happening around me. This year it was easier because I came to realize that at 3:00 in the morning the only people who were there were either participating in Thaipusam or photographing Thaipusam. So I got more comfortable. I had, after all, stood in line to get into the temple — me in my pink dress, an attempt to complement the colors of the event — with about 500 men waiting to participate. In some cultures and locations, that could have been a very uncomfortable situation. Yet I was acknowledged with kindness and never once made to feel out of place. The man at the front of the line controlling entry into the temple made eye contact with me, parted the crowd and invited me to go forward into the temple. He greeted my curiosity with a random act of kindness and encouragement.
I photographed, sometimes directly in front of a participant, locked with his gaze of dignity and belief. I walked around, sat with men chanting, and witnessed men convulsing and falling down in the fervor of their experience. I watched the preparation of milk pots, saw the assembly of chariot kavadis, and wondered at the offerings so lovingly prepared by groups of men and women who had claimed their quiet floor space in the raucous yelling and drumming of the temple. I saw limes attached and tongues pierced and men readying themselves to bear the weight and pain of their burden while walking barefoot for several kilometers. It was astounding, for another year… a display of contrasts and a lesson in mindfulness. Be still, be spellbound, be loud, be silent, be within, be without, be engaged and the essence of life will find you.