Over the weekend we attended Thaipusam. We didn’t know anything about it in advance other than a couple Uber drivers had mentioned it to us as an Indian festival that we had to see. As we found out afterward, it is a Hindu commemoration of the Lord Murugan receiving the Vel spear (representing knowledge and wisdom) which he used to slay evil. As we found out while we were there, it was an unforgettable experience that is the most memorable thing we’ve seen so far on our trip.

Georgetown’s large Indian population makes it one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia with tens of thousands of attendees. On our way to be dropped off, crowds were forming blocks away. We got out of the car at the start of the closed street, and were instantly on sensory overload. Heavily-beated Indian music was pouring from massive speakers. Bright colors were everywhere – clothes, altars, highly decorated tents. Free lunches were being handed out in booths and at temples up and down the street, and the air smelled of delicious curries and vegetables. People were everywhere, some as participants and others to see the spectacle.

In Penang, the center of activity is the Waterfall Hill Temple, where a statue of Lord Murugan is brought the day before in a long procession. On the day of Thaipusam, devotees carrying kavadi walk and dance their way down the street and then climb the 500+ steps to the temple – all in blazing tropical sun & heat.

A little hard to make out, the the top left is one of the metal altars being carried by a man about to start up the temple steps; two of the altars set up along the route.

We learned later that are many types of personal offerings and rites associated with Thaipusam, and each one has deep meaning. People may decide to go through with their offerings as a way to further their spiritual growth, as thanks for answered prayers, or to fulfill a vow.

Many shave their heads as a sacrifice and as a reminder to not let ego control their lives. Some devotees also bear some type of kavadi (burden) to the temple. We were awed by the physicality involved on the day of the celebration, even more when we discovered this is a culmination of a 48-day preparation time. During the lead-up participants, eat only vegetarian meals, fast the day before, practice celibacy, and strive keep actions pure and God foremost in their thoughts.

The most basic kavadi is carrying paal kudam – pots of milk symbolizing purity – the length of the route and up the temple stairs where the milk will be poured over the statue of Lord Murugan. We passed by dozens of people carrying the silver urns on their heads; many were wearing yellow and had yellow flowers. They all looked calm and their concentration seemed to be on making it to the temple amid all the heat and humidity.

Others carry tall, elaborately carved altars over their heads. Some are made of painted and decorated styrofoam and others of metal leaves adorned with peacock feathers. In either case, the altar is balanced on the shoulders and tied to a waist belt for stability. Stopping to dance en route, the journey to the temple can take hours. We also saw dozens of these – some of the styrofoam altars were shaped into peacocks or had dolphins, shrimp, or mice. Each was painted or decorated with feathers, bells, or ribbons, and some had milk offerings balanced precariously on top.

Two men carrying portable altars – the silver jars are attached to hooks run through their skin.

More extreme is bodily piercing and skewering. While not quite as common as the first two, the numbers of people doing this shocked me. Thin spears, representations of the Vel, are run through the cheeks, tongue, or lips. Hooks bearing fruit or small pots of milk are attached to all sides of the torso, arms, and legs. There might be only a handful of pots; others had more than 100 hooked to their body. I can’t imagine what that would weigh, or how long it would take to prepare.

Occasionally, two lines of hooks were run down the back and tied to ropes held by a friend; the bearers leans forward, straining against the piercings during the journey. We even witnessed four men, with double rows of hooks down their backs, roped to a wagon topped with decorated horses and statues. They were slowly pulling the entire float down the length of the street, surrounded by crowds of onlookers.

Look closely – two rows of hooks allow him – and several others – to pull the float.

Drummers accompanied those bearing altars or who are pierced, and loud music was piped through speakers all along the route. Kavadi-bearers often stopped to dance in the street – barefoot on burning pavement. Occasionally, someone was standing with a hose to cool and clean the pavement as a way to show their support. Each kavadi was accompanied by friends there to make sure the altars stayed balanced and carrying chairs so they could rest as the journey progressed. Finally reaching the stairs to the temple, the goal seemed to be to run up as fast as possible. It is a blend of solitary pilgrimage and group effort – the person making the journey was aware they were not alone, even though they were experiencing it on a far more intense level.

Food and drinks are served to all comers as a form of charity and a way of giving thanks to God; by feeding others you are feeding God. Along the route, temples and businesses set up booths that give away free meals and drinks – we saw Bosch, the Penang Airport, Intel, local doctors, and the police (who had an especially long line). We were pointed into a temple by a couple who was leaving. I suppose we looked confused on whether or not we were allowed to go in! They insisted the food was great and that we should just get in line. We did, and it was: yellow curried rice with sweet peppered mangoes, and a couple of kinds of veggies and sauce on top. It reminds me of Easter brunch at church, everyone is welcome and seated at communal tables in the back hall once you go through the meal line. Eating is done with your fingers. Drinks are thankfully served along the street all day -we needed as many as we could get in the tropical temps. We even got a take-away meal box as we were leaving the festival to have for supper.

Meal at the temple, and the front of a booth serving hundreds of meals.

The atmosphere reminded me of a mix of religious procession, concert, county fair, and family picnic. Even though the main focus was on spiritual growth and making offerings to Lord Murugan, this blends seamlessly with stalls selling snacks, fabric, and jewelry, and what is obviously a time for people to come together.

Families are dressed in their best saris and tunics – absolutely beautiful clothes featuring incredible beading and lacework, often with intricate gold jewelry and strings of yellow flowers. In quieter corners, like down the street at the Botanic Gardens, picnics are going on. Everyone is incredibly friendly – people would come up and ask us where we were from and how we were enjoying Thaipusam.

Our photos are not that great, in part because it feels rude to me to photograph people who are on a spiritual journey. In any case, pictures are never going to capture the character of the celebration, the constant barrage of colors and noise and food, the fact that every second is something new to see and hear. I’ve never witnessed such a blend of the spiritual with the everyday or seen such enthusiastic devotion.