Sunday, February 15, 2009
Hindu Ritual Defies Medical Science?
More than ten years ago, I learned about an annual festival that occurs every January or February in India, Malaysia, and Singapore. Participants pierce their bodies with skewers, walk for miles so impaled, and emerge – as I was told - unscathed. This captured my imagination because there was supposedly no blood throughout the process, and any holes that were created, closed up and disappeared almost instantaneously. If that
was true, then this ritual defied medical science. I had to see it for myself, and last week I finally did.
Thaipusam is a Hindu ritual that celebrates victory by an Indian Lord over a demon. Devotees use the occasion as atonement, a prayer, or in memorandum. Their level of engagement ranges from women who carry heavy pots of milk on their heads to men who pull shrines through the streets with ropes that are attached to hooks embedded in their backs. Many men choose to carry kavadi, huge decorative structures – often taller than then the man transporting it. In what my friends and I called the “skewer-light” version, the kavadi are supported by shoulder pads and thick belts, much like a backpack. In the “hardcore version”, participants actually have metal stakes driven through their waists to support the structure. There are two stakes in front of the body and another two behind that bear the bulk of the kavadi’s weight. In most cases, there is also a network of skewers that crisscross – and impale - the chest and back. This secondary system is also important in supporting the structures. Most of the devotees, men and women, sport decorated skewers that pierce through their mouths and tongues.
While this may sound gruesome, it really isn’t. In fact, the entire event had the atmosphere of an arduous sporting event, like a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. Like those events, Thaipusam requires months of rigorous disciplined preparation, a team of friends and family to provide support and encouragement, celebrations before the actual event, and the ability to transcend pain. In the West, an entire industry has formed to train people for endurance sports as a way of raising money, and awareness, around AIDs, leukemia, and a range of other causes. As I watched Thaipusam, I wondered if those men who were carrying their kavata in memory of a deceased parent were really that much different than the soccer mom who runs a marathon for the first time to support a friend who has breast cancer.
On the night before Thaipusam, we met three men who were going to be participants. They explained parts of the ritual to us, and invited us to come back the next morning to watch them prepare – which we did. Two of them are pictured here, but you can also see them parading through Singapore on YouTube.
Thaipusam was amazing, and I am glad that I went. But did it defy medical science? That was the question that drew me to Singapore in the first place. Was it true that there was a lack of blood and a miraculous closure of wounds? Some of what I had been told is true. There is very little blood involved. We watched some of the participants being released from their implements of torture, and there was limited physical damage. Limited, but not non-existent. Based on what I saw, I think the absence of blood and the quick recovery have more to do with the meticulous way in which the skewers are inserted, the fact that it is primarily skin and fat that is pierced rather than muscle, and the use of ash to quickly protect wounds and staunch any blood flow.
If some February in the future, you happen to be in a part of the world where Thaipusam takes place, I strongly recommend that you watch it. But be prepared to get up early. Thaipusam starts at 12 am and runs through a 24-hour clock, but the most impressive activities take place in the middle of the night and the early hours of the morning.