When I think of culturally significant body modification rituals, I always picture some ancient peoples with saucer-sized lip plates and beautiful scarification designs adorning their bodies. But today I found a Malaysia National News Agency article that refers to a modern mod-related cultural festival to be held this Saturday in Penang, Malaysia.
Participants in the Thaipusam festival perform a number of body modifications in order to show their appreciation for the grace of Lord Murugan, a Hindu god. Some of the modifications performed include cheek, lip, and tongue skewering, placing metal hooks connected to weights on the back, and wearing kavadis (apparatus fixed with sharp spikes that dig into the skin when it is worn). Other worshippers show their faith and appreciation by simply carrying jugs of milk from a site in Lebuh, Penang 10 kilometers to the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple in Jalan Kebun Bunga. Don’t think it’s just they guys who modify for the sake of religion, though. Many women, such as the one below, participate as well.
I couldn’t help but let out a self-righteous giggle when I read another article about the Thaipusam, which expressed utter awe at the various modification rituals performed, apparently unaware that similar ones are done for non-religious purposes in the West. The article also claims that the participants of Thaipusam magically never bleed during their acts of faith. This was an odd statement for a number of reasons: 1) Cheek piercings often don’t bleed (although they sometimes do, it's no miracle that many Thaipusam cheek skewers didn't) 2) Most kavadis only subject the wearer to a number of sharp, non-penetrating pokes 3) The hooks that are said to be “pierced” through the skin are actually just hung securely on outstretched skin 4) I have found pictures of Thaipusam participants bleeding as a result of lip and other piercings. Sorry, I just love proving news articles wrong, especially when they have to do with body modification :o)
After checking out some information on same-day passports and airfare to Malaysia, I decided it wasn’t really a possibility for me to experience the festival first hand this year. I guess I’ll have to wait for the next full moon in the 10th Tamil month of Thai. Whenever that is...