Thaipusam in Penang: Incredible Images of a painful Hindu tradition

Thaipusam 2012 in Penang Malaysia

Last Updated on March 17, 2021 by Dani

What is going on here?! The Thaipusam festival

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated each year on the full moon in either January or February each year by the Tamil community. Originating from the Tamil Nadu region of India and Northern Sri Lanka, the Thaipusam celebrations also take place in Malaysia and Singapore, where there are also large representations of the Tamil community.

The name ThaiPusam comes from the Tamil month ‘Thai’, during which the celebrations take place, and ‘pusam’, the name of the star at its highest point during the festival.

thaipusam 2012 in penang malaysia

A procession of coconuts and spears

The festival commemorates the victory of the Hindu god Lord Murugan over the demon Tarakusaran with a ‘vel’, or spear, and thus ridding them of evil.

Although the festival is celebrated over two days, devotees begin a period of fasting and prayer a full 48 hours before Thaipusam. Here in Malaysia, the biggest Thaipusam festivities take place at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, where over one million devotees join the 13-kilometer long procession from Central KL to the Caves.

thaipusam man with spears through mouthLucky for us, Penang has the second-biggest festivities of the country, with over 200,000 people flocking to the island for it – us included! Here in Penang, the procession starts at a temple in Georgetown’s Little India neighborhood and makes its way over several kilometers to Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on top of a hill outside of town.

thaipusam 2012 family with hooksOn the first day of Thaipusam, a statue of Lord Murugan is carried to the temple and devotees smash coconuts as an offering to the deity.

On the second day, devotees shave their heads and make their pilgrimage to the temple while performing acts of devotion. This often includes ‘kavadi’-bearers (kavadi meaning burden) who carry their burden – ranging from a simple milk pot to the more extreme mortification of flesh.

thaipusam 2012 penang shaving head

Why go through all of this pain?

This self-mutilation is done with a spear, resembling the vel’ Murugan used to vanquish the evil demon Tarakusaran. Many devotees only pierce their tongue for this occasion, but it is hard not to notice the hundreds, even thousands, who pierce their cheeks with vels, or undergo even more extreme pain to thank Murugan.

thaipusam 2012 devotee with spear & hooksThe more pain endured by the devotee, the greater the merits bestowed upon them by the god of war Murugan.

thaipusam 2012 walking on nailsThe pierced tongue also prevents the devotees from speaking, which is another sign of atonement.

devotee with tongue piercing at thaipusamThe hooks in the back are another form of burden that a kavadi-bearer can endure, and some of the devotees do not only have hooks in their backs, but also pull another devotee behind them by those hooks.

thaipusam 2012 hooks of devoteesAnother burden is the decorated canopy which is carried to the temples on the shoulders of the devotee. Some of the kavadi-bearers only carry the canopy, while others have additional piercings and hooks.

thaipusam 2012 with canopy & spearsWhile many of the devotees are Indians, there are also a surprising number of Chinese kavadi-bearers in the procession.

thaipusam 2012 penang chinese devoteesEven if only one person in the family is a kavadi-bearer, the entire family dresses up in their traditional saris and supports their family member in their act of devotion for Lord Muruga.

thaipusam 2012 hindu familiesSinging, dancing, drums, and loud music are also a big part of the celebrations.

Thaipusam in Malaysia: Watch the Video

Before devotees make their way up to the temple on top of the hill, they have to take their shoes off. With more than 200,000 people, there are hundreds of shoes waiting for their owners to return…

thaipusam penang shoes of devoteesCow milk and the silver jars in which the milk is kept and transported up on top of the hill can be purchased at the many stands around the temple.

milk & jarsAnd of course there is plenty of delicious Indian food – and sweets!

indian sweetsAt the end of the second day, the chariot is brought back to Little India in a procession back into town from Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple, and arrvies there just before dawn on the following day.

penang hindu templeDon’t try this at home!

You might notice a distinct lack of blood here in these images, considering the amount of flesh just recently pierced. Some say this is due to the fasting, or an all-vegetarian diet, and both most likely play a role, as it is due in part to low blood pressure which results from the fasting. The devotees also do not suffer from scars when the piercings are removed, thanks to a special healing mixture of powders and creams tested over the centuries. Each year, at least a few inexperienced foreigners attempt to take full part in the festivities, and wind up getting fairly hurt. So while this is a once-in-a-lifetime festival to visit – we say leave your ‘vels’ at home!

thaipusam 2012 penang devotees with hooks & spears

You can see more photos of Thaipusam in Penang in our photo album on Facebook.


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Tags : malaysiapenang


    1. Sabrina, yes so incredible. But there is some sort of mix they put on post-festival, and it keeps the scarring down to an absolute minimum. Not that we even want to test that!

    1. Seriously, Dalene…after a whole day of looking at these piercings, we almost (‘almost’, yeah right) got used to seeing these painful sights…until we saw this man walking on shoes of nails. He was literally about 2km back from the first temple, plus had to walk up all the steps to the top of the hill to that temple. Unreal!

  1. Holy crap! That must have been some spectacle. I wonder at the folks doing the piercing – some of those guys in the pics had hundreds of hooks in their backs, there must be a thriving industry in piercing people for the celebration!
    Tell you what though, I think that scar-prevention ointment stuff would be worth something back in the western world! If it stops a scar from getting both cheeks skewered… that’s amazing!

    1. Tony – that’s a good point! There’s a huge industry surrounding the festival indeed.. not only the piercings, but also the coconuts, milk, milk jars for the offerings, traditional saris, the hairdressers, the food… and hotels of course!

  2. WOW. I had read about this happening in Phuket, but had no idea that it also takes place in Penang.

    Incredible series of photos (and video).

    I love these sorts of travel experiences!

    1. Definitely ouch! It was painful just to look at it, and you could see the pain in the eyes of many of the devotees… I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be able to go through this.

  3. I have seen this kind of painful things that some people have to endure. I just hope that the people who will do this will be treated after the ritual. It is because their pain looks unbearable. Thanks for sharing the photographs of the festival.

    1. We saw that the kadavi-bearers were treated before, during and after the festival. It was incredibly strenuous for them – not only had they carry the fruit or jars hanging from the hooks, but also endure the extreme heat of Penang in February. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for them.

    1. Yes, we planned it that way. At first we were disappointed not to be able to be in KL for Thaipusam, but in the end we preferred being in Penang with less people. It was an amazing experience.

  4. Oh my goodness! Walking on nails with limes to make it more painful? I can’t imagine moving much less dancing with so many piercings with so much weight on them! I barely enjoy wearing heavy earrings.

    These photos will definitely stick with me, thank you (?) for teaching me something new today. 😉

    1. You can still see it next year 🙂 It’s a fantastic experience, I’d highly recommend seeing it. Even though sometimes it is NOT easy to look at the devotees – just seeing what they are going through hurts!

  5. Are there also women participating in this? I think there is a woman in the video carrying a large … thing. Not sure what the name of it could be. But I didn’t see a woman with such piercing. Or maybe I didn’t look closely enough to avoid the pain…

    Great photo essay!

    1. Good question, Inge – we actually did not see any women with hooks or piercing, it seems only men are kadavi-bearers. The women only carried the silver milk jars on their head. We also didn’t see any children that were pierced except for one boy.

  6. Wow. This is the sort of thing that you’ve kind of heard about, but almost don’t believe actually exists. Your photos are both great and disturbing at the same time!

  7. I accidentally ran across this in Singapore three years ago and until I read your post, I still didn’t know what it was! Since I was in LIttle India, I knew it had to be a Hindi ritual. It’s very cool to finally know what it’s all about. Thanks!

    1. Leah – I heard that Singapore is one of the best places outside of India to experience Thaipusam – it must have been as crazy as it was in Penang. We’ll finally head to Singapore next month and I’m excited to explore Little India there!

  8. Thanks for writing a post about this! Very informative.

    I was also in Penang this past February and I stumbled across the Thaipusam festival via our taxi driver. I thought it was an insanely organized chaos – the number of people, the hot weather, the (very!) loud music, the many food/sari/refreshments stalls, and the devotees. I hope you are having (or have had?) a great time in Malyasia. I really enjoyed it!


    1. Thanks Pauline! How great that you stumbled across Thaipusam in Penang – it’ such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, right? We really enjoyed Malaysia but the heat killed us. Don’t know how the devotees did it during the festival – hiking up that mountain with all the hooks / piercings – crazy! Where else did you go in Malaysia?

      1. The heat killed us too! It was ridiculously hot and I swear, the sun rays down there seem to be meaner than they are up here in Canada! We constantly wondered how most of the women wore saris yet they seem like they don’t sweat at all. Did you have a chance to visit Batu Feringgi while you were in Penang?

        We took the overnight train from Penang to Kuala Lumpur afterward. KL was also pretty awesome!

        1. We were surprised how humid it was – it made sightseeing not easy! Some of the men were sweating like crazy during Thaipusam, but you are right, the women seemed to deal with it much better. We didn’t get to visit Batu Feringgi this time, but we’ve already decided that we need to go back to Penang to see more – it was our favorite place in Malaysia.

  9. The photos are amazing. I’ve seen this on TV and never witnessed it. So lucky of you guys to get a chance to see it up close!

    Looks intense.

    1. Thanks Mica! It was definitely intense but we were excited to be there for it – it’s such a crazy event. Would be great to witness it in Southern India or Sri Lanka one day.

  10. Yikes! Looking at these pictures was hard enough, not sure I could handle actually being there. I admire their devotion but damn that’s gotta be painful!

    1. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted ones, Ali 😉 It was kinda surreal seeing the devotees ‘in real life’ in front of you and not just in a picture – it was mind-blowing!!

    1. I wasn’t sure if I’d have the stomach for it but I ended up being in absolute awe the whole time and didn’t even have time to think about getting sick 😉

  11. i would shave my head and that’s about it 🙂 While all the pictures are pretty much insane, the one of the shoes with nails on it, well, it made me wince!!

    1. Kate, you would shave your head?! Wow!! Well I don’t think either one of us would go that far 😉 The guy with the nails in the shoes was by far the craziest. And he was obviously in so much pain – couldn’t believe he was walking like that for hours.

    1. Thanks, Claudine! It was hard to take in the beginning, but we got used to it pretty quickly. The only thing that made me feel sick to my stomach later that day was the guy who was walking on nails. He’d been walking for miles and miles like that!

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