Thaipusam and the Thaipusam Penang in particular is quite an experience for a non believer. As I wrote somewhere else Thaipusam is for the Indians the time to carry out acts of penance in fulfillment of vows made to the deity, Lord Muruga.
In 2006 I was on my bicycle in China, doing a journey from Kunming in Yunnan down south to Vientiane in Laos. David, who is a Malaysian Indian invited me already for the Thaipusam then but I couldn't make it. This year it was different. David had just returned from a 40 days cycling journey in south India and was full of stories of his journey. It was a good moment to visit him.
I cycled the 135 km to his house in Nibong Tebal, about 40 km south of Penang. Together with his youngest two sons and his youngest daughter we left early in the morning of the 1st February to Penang.
As you know I live in Sitiawan and although quite a few Indians live here, as they do in Pangkor, the Thaipusam here is quite small. The biggest celebration is in Kuala Lumpur but I felt Penang was big enough for me.
We arrived in Penang where the crowds were already gathering. Some of the devotees were already working themselves up to a state of trance while bells and other items were attached to the body using hooks.
On the main street there were many stalls selling all kinds of things. This went from drinks, sweets and other snacks to other religious items and books. Nice copies of for example the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy books for Hindus were sold.
Many stalls had enormous loudspeakers blasting music at the highest possible volume. It didn't seem to matter if the sound was good or not as some of them had a very distorted sound.
Although it was still early, there were already many people around. Most of the visitors were Indians but there were also interested Chinese, a few foreigners and even a few Malays. The whole event was excellent organised by the local authorities. Police directed cars to special parking places and when I climbed up to the main temple, I saw first aid service from the St. Ann's hospital, a Christian hospital, on the stairs to help those who had troubles.
Although it was still early I had troubles to go up to the main temple. There were way too many people so I decided to cancel as I saw it would take a very long time to reach the temple. Instead I stayed for awhile on the stairs watching devotees climbing.
I found David back. He explained a few things about the Thaipusam Penang. I asked him if he had ever done a Thaipusam but he explained he didn't believe enough to do so.
When I am writing this, a week after the Thaipusam, I can still smell the different smells of that day. David and I found us a good spot near the temple at the beginning of the stairs. From here we had a good view over the crowds. There was little noise then every once in while an announcement how much money was collected for the temple and a little bit of music.
Now the devotees who were actually doing a Thaipusam started to arrive. Some had sticks pierced through their cheeks, a few bells haning on their body but others had a meter long and thick iron stick through their cheeks and had even coconuts pieced through the flesh.
For me as a non believer, it was a weird scene. I still do not understand how people can do this without any harm to the body. Over the whole day I have seen people being completely pierced but I haven't seen a single drop of blood.
To my surprise not only Indians were performing a Thaipusam. A considerable amount of Chinese believers, David told me near Nibong Tebal there's a complete Chinese Hindu town. Two westerners also performed while being followed by a camera crew.
David and I went to a smaller building besides the temple to get some special prepared vegetarian food only prepared on this very day. There was a long row but it all went fast and we even could find a place to sit and enjoy our lunch of two different vegetarian dishes and excellent dhal.
There was very peaceful feeling the whole day and although especially in the main street it was extremely busy, no one was losing their cool, the devotees who were building up their trance could do this in peace (or sometimes in an enormous noise of the trance music).
Some Krishna devotees were singing and dancing and giving leaflets away.
While David, his children and me walked back through the main street, we saw a few of devotees who finished their Thaipusam. They looked tired but happy to have accomplished their tasks.
Although this Indian festival is in many ways quite alien to me, as a Dutchman, I felt deep respect for people performing here. All in all it was a life time experience for me.