The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Thaipusam - Exercise of Body and Spirit

At the end of January, I posted about the celebration of Thaipusam. Readers have been e-mailing, asking for photos and stories about our work there studying the devotional piercing, and the medicines, exercises, and nutrition practices done to prepare for, and heal from the festival.

Thaipusam is a Hindu celebration of deep devotion (bhakti) and thanks to Muruga (also called other names including Subramaniam), the son of Shiva. Thaipusam is celebrated in many places around the world, with the largest observances in India, Singapore, and Malaysia.

For more than a month before the full moon in the Tamil month of "Thai," the faithful begin mental and physical exercise and preparation. They eat vegetarian food, eat sparingly, pray, do acts of kindness and good deeds, exercise, wash, use medicinal incense, say kind and positive things out loud, refrain from bad action, and from smoking and alcohol. They say that these practices improve their physical and mental endurance, and reduce infection or scarring from the devotional piercings.

This year, in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia where we studied the festival, there were over one million devotees at the Batu Caves. Two nights before Thaipusam, the faithful begin an overnight fire-lit procession from the Maha Mariamman Temple in Chinatown to the Cave, 15 kilometers away, an 8-hour journey. Many carry pots of milk symbolizing purity and life-giving, flowers, fire, and other offerings.

The faithful make an enormous celebration of happy song, drumming, dance, the air filled with the smell of incense and flowers, and chanting "Vel Vel! Vel Vel!" A Vel is a symbol of the lance given to Muruga by his mother, to win in the battle of goodness over evil.

Muruga is regarded as a destroyer of evil and preserver of good. He is usually depicted with a vel (lance). For that reason, in the Thaipusam celebration of thanks to Muruga, silver or steel vel in various sizes are pierced through the skin of the back, cheek, and tongue, a symbol of stopping evil, purifying yourself, and becoming more noble.

As devotees entered the festival grounds, many shaved and painted their head with herbs as a sign of pure thanks.

At Batu, there are 272 steps to the top. On the trip upward, a holy man, dancing each step one by one, turned to me and with three fingers daubed my forehead in a traditional triple stripe of Vibhuti sacred ash from his own forehead as a gift to me. He laughed then "doinked" my forehead with one finger and pronounced that I had a good third eye, and the sacred ash would keep it awake from then onward.

A highly devotional rite is carrying the Kavadi. We took the photo below of a kvadi-bearer, dressed in devotional yellow, pierced back and chest with vels. We have since seen this man's photo in the Wikipedia article about Thaipusam. He was a representational figure, that was certain. We got to talk with him and his family. We didn't want to interfere with anyone during their intense personal prayers, and tried to move out of his way through the packed bustling throng. But he stopped and smiled at us. A young man with him whipped a cell phone from his shorts and took *our* photo, click click! He called to me, "Hello Auntie!"

Many devotees there stopped to answer our questions about their lives, and to ask about ours, and to ask to take their photo with us - the funny tall foreigners.

Many of the faithful perform acts of thanks for a specific blessing received. This year in Penang, a man who prayed to heal an injured leg and recovered, walked the entire way to the festival on shoes made of nails.

The idea is not masochism (or reinjury), but showing outwardly and inwardly that the benefit received was far greater than the self-sacrifice given in return. The piercings aren't meant as a violent act, they are "only by expert hands" and a sign of will power, concentration, and piety. There are tourists who attend for just the festival day and try piercings as a stunt, or sometimes, to better understand the meaning of the festival and the thanksgiving it teaches.

The claims for the sacred ash is that its use prevents pain, bleeding, scarring, and infection. Part of what we found is that it naturally contains a styptic, similar to the shaving pencil that constricts blood vessels to stop shaving cuts from bleeding. It also contains natural local numbing and antimibrobials similar to clove oil. That's as far as we could go in studying that particular ash. Our bags of it were confiscated at the airport by United States TSA agents, along with all my wasabi paste and research notes on that and other work while there. I will post more in the future about these kinds of medicines, which are used in modern day patches and creams for muscle soreness.

More than just the chemical nature of the sacred ash, the weeks of preparing through physical exercise, nutritional improvement, daily mental exercises, and the great kindness of the family and friends supporting the kvadi-bearers go toward quick healing.

Do happy things, praise others, exercise a bit every day, eat things that are good for you and the environment. These things will prepare you to be strong in all you do.

Photos copyright by Jolie and Paul

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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.