THAIPUSAM:  THE  ULTIMATE  SACRIFICE

MANILA, APRIL 7, 2006 (STAR) CHUVANNESS By Cecile Van Straten - Itís Lent and itís so hot. Itís the time of year us Christians are called to sacrifice or give up something we like for about six weeks.

Sad to say my Lenten sacrifice this year is pretty lame: no Coke.

I know I can give up something more difficult, like sweets or Internet or shopping, but I canít. Not now.

One of the more difficult sacrifices Iíve heard of were my sisterís friend living in Hong Kong who gave up shopping for six weeks. Think about it.

The late Pope John Paul II supposedly slept on the floor every Friday.

And Catholics in Medjugorje take only bread and water on Fridays all year round.

I asked around and found only a handful of people who are actually giving up something this Lent.

Sacrificing during Lent seems to be a dying art. Go to Jollibee on a Friday and see how many people are having Chicken Joy.

When I was a kid I used to hate it during Holy Week when all the newspapers and magazines would feature penitents on the cover every single year.

Like whatís the big deal about the flogging (more like fly-swatting if you ask me), and why do tourists flock to watch men being crucified on Good Friday?

Make that crucifixion with sterilized nails.

Now that Iím older I can sort of appreciate stuff like that, thank God.

I know, because on my last trip to Singapore, I did more than the usual shopping and eating we normally indulge in. I witnessed the Thaipusam festival Ė something I could not have stomached many years ago.

They say Thaipusam is not for the faint-hearted. I would describe it as part-penitencia, part Fashion Week, and part-Ripleyís Believe It Or Not.

It is an intense show of faith and sacrifice offered by Hindus once a year, on a full moon in the Hindu month of Thai.

Iíve read that while Thaipusam has been outlawed in India, Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia continue to observe the Thaipusam Festival in honor of Lord Subramaniam, son of Shiva. Devotees go through fantastic acts of self-torture in order to give thanks to Lord Maruga Ė or they will get bad luck.

One month before, men who choose to go through the sacrifice go through a cleansing process to prepare for the torture ritual. They are not allowed to drink, smoke or have sex. They must also meditate regularly.

Thaipusam is a big deal for Hindu families who spend thousands of Singapore dollars to finance the props needed for the festival.

Months before they will place an order for a kavadi (a portable altar or yoke of burden) from a special manufacturer.

A kavadi is a large wood or metal frame with spikes and hooks meant to be supported on oneís head and body.

Family members have a say on the design of the kavadi which is elaborately decorated with chains, bells and peacock feathers.

Our tour guide said a kavadi can cost as much as the price of a small car and you can just imagine its weight by looking at the pictures.

Of course I had no idea what a kavadi was until I saw it for myself upon arriving at the Srinivasa Perumal Temple site in Little India.

First I saw it inside a parked truck, still clueless on what itís for. Later, I saw it on a human body.

One after another I saw these men with kavadis walking out of the temple site like a Ripleyís fashion show, some of them jumping up and down.

Let me tell you I have seen many fashion shows, but nothing quite like this.

Itís something you have to see once in your life, and trust me, you do not want to see these people at the foot of your bed at three in the morning.

From the temple, devotees will go on a two-mile trek around a special path.

There will be great disappointment and misfortune if they do not finish, so family members follow them, carrying milk pots, chanting prayers and encouraging them to go on.

We were led to a place where preparations were made prior to the walk. It is said that devotees enter a trance-like state in order to tolerate the pain involved. A special white powder is used prior to piercing and I see no blood. Supposedly, these self-mutilations cause no pain and leave no scars.

Family members help and watch as men pierce their tongues with metal skewers.

I saw a man patiently waiting his turn on the walk, sitting on a stool with a spear in his cheeks. Lovely. Behind him was a fully decorated altar on wheels Ė attached to his bare back with hooks. He looked kind of sungit and did not want his picture taken. (But of course I took the picture.)

I moved to a couple of young Hindu men who were having limes and sort of metallic "snowflake" ornaments hooked on their torsos. The guy with metal ornaments didnít look so happy, but the guy with the limes was singing and dancing and seemed like he was having a good time.

Lime is a special ingredient at the Thaipusam. Lots of men walked around with these hooked on their bodies; I shall never look at limes the same way again.

In addition to the Hindu families and devotees, the place was teeming with locals, tourists and all sorts of reporters and camera crews. It was such an organized, spectacular event, fully supported by the Singapore government and Tourism Board.

From the temple where our group started, we moved to a viewing gallery somewhere in Little India for a better look and to take more pictures of the kavadi carriers. I have to say that while I found everything extremely fascinating, the whole time I had this nauseating feeling in my throat, like I was 12 weeks pregnant. The sensation continued throughout the most of the trip and to this day when I look at the pictures.

Starving at that point, our tour guide took us to late lunch at an Indian restaurant called Banana Leaf at Race Course Road. Our lunch consisted of naan (unleavened Indian bread) with an assortment of dips, basmati rice and all sorts of orange-colored dishes served on a banana leaf.

To be honest, the last thing I wanted for lunch was Indian food. I just wanted to erase anything Indian or Thaipusam from my brain while eating.

In addition to our meal, our Singaporean tour guide ordered and insisted that we try this refreshing juice drink he really loves. It turned out to be a calamansi juice with whole limes, which was probably imported from the Philippines.

While my colleague was delighted to sip her drink, I asked for my last ice-cold glass of Coke because, I tell you, I could never look at limes the same way again.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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