Malaysia has a different ethnic background constituted of Malays, Indians and Chinese. Each one of these groups have their own celebrations, calendars, holidays, parties and religious activities. It’s easy to understand that, for the random traveler or the long term expatriate, the country has always something on offer almost every week. Especially in Penang, where I currently live, things are even taken to the next level.
Indians are a lot around here, probably even more than in KL, and Indian culture is everywhere. You’d be surprised not finding an Indian Temple every two or three street corners, in some particular areas, and no, I’m not mentioning Little India. Most of the Indians in Penang are from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and this reflects in their dark skin color, and the supreme vegetarian cuisine you can sample almost anywhere in town. Their religion, on the other part, is one of the most visual and colorful, ranging a pantheon of gods to impress even the articulate Greek and Roman pantheons. Hundreds of stone people in different guises and poses ornate the pinnacles and towers of the temples…and to me, they are beautiful.
Now, one of the most characteristic and incredible Indian festivals we have in Malaysia, and actually, just and only in Malaysia (this fest has been banned even in India, because considered too gruesome) is Thaipusam. In three words, prayers, hooks and sacrifice. Why hooks? Because there are so many piercing those Indian faces, shoulders, backs and skin, if you are easily impressionable, you’d might have a hard time watching. Essentially, there is a procession of devotees carrying a Kavadi (a huge, heavy thing to bear and carry around over your shoulders or head) going from lateral temples to the main Penang’s Waterfall temple, close to the Botanical Garden.
To do this, the devotees have to pierce themselves, usually cheek to cheek with a skewer, or using small hooks to puncture their whole bodies and transforming them in eerie human Christmas trees, or using hooks pierced through their backs’ skin which are pulled by their families. Sometimes they also team up and pull religious chariots this way. It’s a big, massive feast of masochistic devotion, truly unique and only found in Malaysia.
I had been expecting this for a long time, being unable to check it out last year because I was lost somewhere in Java. Two friends were staying here with us, a French and a Chinese. Plus an Italian and another Chinese, yes, it sounds like one of those jokes where people are about to jump off a plane or something equally silly. Well, the whole experience was as funny as a joke, by the way. We started taking a walk around my neighborhood around 3 pm, and we stumbled across a full open field full of people running amok, who pierced up for good, who in the process of being savagely saucered, and others just praying and preparing for the massive feast of religion and craziness.
TO BE CONTINUED