Though Singapore seems like any modern, prosperous city with its skyscrapers and high standards of living, the ancient traditions and customs of the three dominant ethnic communities- Chinese, Indian, and Malay- are still practiced with great passion. One of the most remarkable festivals is the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. A word of warning, though:this festival is not for the faint of heart.
Celebrated during the full moon in the month of Thai- mid- January to mid-February in the Western calendar- Thaipusam is held in honor of Lord Subrahmanya, the Hindu god of war and victory. Devotees pay respects to him by parading from one temple to another, carrying offerings of milk and flowers for the god. While this may not sound so bad, some devotees show their devotion through more extreme methods.
After putting themselves into a trance by chanting and meditating, they wound their own bodies, driving steel rods through one cheek and out the other or attaching hooks to their backs, legs, tongues, or other body parts. They then use these hooks to drag around decorated weights, declaring their devotion to their deity while spectators and supporters play drums and sing religious chants to keep up morale. Some even carry around portable altars called kavadis , which are attached to their skin by more than a hundred spikes. The devotees claim that Lord Subrahmanya protects them during these rites and ensures that little damage is done to his subjects.
Devotees prepare for these feats a month in advance and spend a great deal of time starving themselves, praying, and meditating in order to make themselves spiritually strong enough to undergo the ordeal. Afterward, these people are considered to have encountered the deity through their acts of self-punishment, and thus receive favorable treatment from the community for the rest of the year.
Though this kind of spiritual devotion can seem extreme to most people, it is one of the most important religious rites of the Indian community in Singapore, and witnessing it enables an outsider to view something that is very sacred to these people.