Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pain and Rain - 3


To watch a bamboo spear thrust through a human cheek and tongue until it emerges through the other cheek is not for the faint-hearted.    
It only hurts when you smile
     This strange masochistic Indian Hindu custom is held once a year as a form of penance and intense devotion. Its practice, though banned in India, is still performed in Malaysia and Singapore by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai - January or February. 
      My wife and I happened to be in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, during this Tamil festival of Thaipusam when such sights are seen. 
    We made our way to the temple where hundreds of devotees were already assembled, Amidst all the noise, smoke, smell of ghee, throng of bodies and riot of colorful saris and headgear, we saw distinct groups of flute, drum and cymbal players, incense bearers, chant leaders and priests.
    A member from each family had already been chosen to do their penance and families were grouped around them. They, in turn, then commenced a slow hypnotic chant, which built up with a perspiring noisy crescendo, until the penitent suddenly fell into a trance-like state.
Thaipusam penance 
    Once family groups had been blessed by a priest and prayers offered up, the ritual of body piercing then commenced; the penitents stood, dazed and spaced-out, whilst males of the family proceeded to pierce the flesh with all manner of spears, needles, and weighted hooks.
    Short spears and needles were threaded through cheeks and tongue, fish hooks weighted with oranges or lemons were snagged into forehead, chest, or back. To prevent longer spears from tearing the flesh they were supported in a harness and then stabbed into the ribcage and belly.
    At no time was there any bleeding, nor any sign of pain shown, yet often other members of the family were seen writhing in agony on the ground, as if the penitent’s pain had been transmuted to the family member by some form of mental telepathy.
One step at a time
    Once ‘dressed' in all these masochistic items, they then had to complete their penance by walking in procession along the streets to another temple about a kilometre away. Dry coconut shells were frequently smashed on the road for them to walk over and add to the pain and discomfort already felt.
    In order that no one in the family were missed out from the event, young babies up to the age of three were presented to the priests who, with a cut-throat razor, shaved the infant’s heads  and rubbed their bodies with ghee to indoctrinate them into the sect.
    I never cease to be amazed at the strange rituals that we humans subject ourselves to.
    With eyes still bulging from disbelief and our hair and clothes reeking of incense from the Thaipusam experience, we raced to the airport just in time to catch a local flight across the South China Sea to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Borneo.
     Our approach to Kuching was in such a horrific monsoonal storm we could not see the tips of the wings. Twice we came in too fast, too low, and too scared; twice we 'touched down' on a narrow runway between oil-palm trees and took off again to circle some more before finally managing to get the wheels to stick to the ground. With eyes on stalks, nerves jangling and hair on end, a spontaneous round of applause broke out – we had arrived in Sarawak. Thank goodness, for the lingering smell of incense!
   We thought we had seen torrential rain in mainland Malaysia, but compared to the rains of Borneo they had been nothing but mere showers. In our journey through Borneo, we were to see 200-feet wide rivers, rise overnight by twenty feet. The previous year a record rise of fifty-eight feet was registered after one incredible deluge.
    I felt at home, I had been here before.
Kuching, though outwardly different since my last visit, felt somehow familiar, a little like me I suppose, for I reached another big zero birthday the day after we arrived, a sad but inevitable point in everyone’s life, I guess. Never mind, I think I have solved the problem of ageing: I intend having all future birthdays in reverse order – I can't wait to be twenty-five again! I seem to recall that thirty-five was a good year too!
    We celebrated my coming of age with dinner at a recently built Hilton Hotel, the meal was less than average, and the wine had travelled badly, however, Jean saved the day by tracking down some freshly handmade chocolates.
    We gorged upon these as we sat in rickety rattan chairs, playing cards on the enclosed veranda of a large, old-fashioned colonial Anglican church-house where we had managed to find lodgings.
     All around us the monsoonal elements howled and honoured my birthday by playing a Dante Symphony with wind instruments played by wildly flapping corrugated tin roofs; a percussion section of savagely swishing palm trees; huge splats of raindrops drummed against wooden shutters, and the choral section outdid themselves with prodigious amounts of thunder and lightning. The earth was being whipped up into an all-encompassing frenzied celebratory protest. What a performance! Life was good.
    I don’t recall birthdays in suburbia ever being so relaxingly exciting as this.
To be continued …
Written by:- Roy Romsey
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