An Attempt to Explain — Thaipusam, Great Photo Op and a Hindu Festival You’re Likely to Never Forget

Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer, photographer
Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer, photographer

Thaipusam processions and the carnival are not ordinary ones. It is a “high ending” of a period of fasting and it is a celebration of some huge achievements. You can compare it to some tough endurance races — but this is an endurance race with the spiritual self and body pierced with lances of religious fervor. It is like the feats of Ironman triathlons and other things with Lord Murugan and Urumi Melam thrown in. It is a public display of a sense of faith, pain and self-mutilation. It is an offering of yourself to the god — body, mind and spirit. And a great photo opportunity.

Thaipusam is an important festival observed by the Hindus of southern India during the Tamil month of Thai (January — February). Outside of India, it is celebrated mainly by the Tamil speaking community settled in Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world.

Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore are known for their superb organisation and colorful fervor. The real activity starts the day before at the Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road. Devotees and their families begin preparing for the famous Kavadi pilgrimage on the Thaipusam day.

Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer
Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer

The preparations in the temple involve many aspects. First the devotees have a shower and dress themselves in just plain red or ochre color garments — Murugan’s favorite colors. They then set up the Kavadi and all its parts in a beautiful display and take a vow and blessings with a prayer.

Devotees bear milk, water, fruits and floral tributes on pails hung from a yoke and carry them on their shoulders to the Murugan Temple in Tank Road a distance of 4.5 km cutting right through the city. The wooden or bamboo structure called Kavadi is covered with cloth and decorated with feathers of peacock — the vehicle of Lord Murugan.

This is where it gets bloody. We’re talking serious body piercing. Many Kavadis are made of steel and are placed on the shoulders of devotees using belts and strapped on to the torso — some parts of the Kavadis are pierced to the body using jewelry like pins.

These days they are even using LED lights and pictures of their favorite gods and idols (like Hanuman). The devotee has to carry the structures — often made from heavy steel — and walk the whole distance of 4.5 km.

Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer
Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer

Many fanatical devotees pierce their bodies to appease the lord with hooks, skewers and small lances called “vel.” Many of these devotees even pull chariots and heavy objects with hooks attached to the skin. Some pierce their tongue and cheek to impede speech and thereby attain full concentration on the lord.

Few devotees enter into a trance during such piercing due to the incessant drumming and chanting.

When it comes to Thaipusam festival, people ask me two big questions. If they are interested in photography they ask, “Why are you shooting the same thing every year? Is it not the same? So boring… blah blah blah.”

If they are the newly arrived expats in Singapore they always ask what is going on here, OMG this is strange, and why is this festival being celebrated this way and why all the piercings, etc., etc.

I can’t answer either of those questions well, even now, despite so many years of shooting the spectacle and being an Indian from Chennai (formerly Madras) who has seen and heard of this festival and should know about why this is being celebrated.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth” — that’s a quote by Marcus Aurelius. And it is true in the case of Thaipusam as well. The Thaipusam festival can be quite a bizarre event for many and it is one festival that defies easy explanation.

Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer
Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer

Like many inexplicable things in the world, it leaves you with an indelible mark on your mind stream, whether you like it or not.

It is likely you are not to forget or erase the experience so easily. I have made pictures of this feast many times in Singapore and yet every year I am lured by the drama, the color and the indomitable spirit of the Kavadi bearers.

This year, most importantly, without forgetting, I made sure I asked for the permission (usually a hand gesture or a simple ask) to make the picture. Many of them happily agreed and wanted more with poses etc. — phew. This year I also noticed the family members were hugely into the Samsungs and the HTCs and instant uploads of the movie files too. Advanced Singapore. I tell you!!

Even this year I saw the same families who do this festival every year. There is a lot to learn about the teamwork, the camaraderie and the total family spirit they all show and share at these events. It was also great to see the gurus and the reverence to culture and tradition, especially when they take the blessings and get ready for the walk.

Inside the temple I met photographer Alex Ortega and he told me something that made me feel refreshed. He said to me that he decided to follow one Kavadi bearer right through from the start to the the finish as his personal memory maker. How wonderful!

He also said that the wanted to know more about the whole process of the Thaipusam Kavadi journey and not just randomly shoot. I felt happy for Alex and the the Kavadi bearer who he decided to follow. This is true dedication. True sacrifice and well made.

Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer
Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer

Thaipusam is a special and unique festival. It is very personal and it involves sarifices — walking the path, taking up responsibilities, enduring pain, training your body and spirit, completing the task and making individual choices: metaphors that are dead-obvious if you peel through these words. The festival celebrations here in Singapore specially are to be experienced at all these different levels.

Many images and experiences loom at you everywhere and one can get easily distracted. One needs to stay on course and have courage and trust. From a photo shoot perspective: I found that you have to shoot each episode (the Kavadi preparations and the prayers) fast and then shoot the leaving and the beginning of the journey. Then spend some time thinking and reviewing — in a relaxed manner. And then start again.

Unlike many other festivals, this carnival, this visual spectacle has many layers and many backgrounds — some things are explainable and some are not. It is very easy to get caught in the argument of why some are piercing themselves and carry these heavy loads. Is this the way to see god? What is going on!

While there is no harm in this type of questioning, you soon realize it leads nowhere. I let myself free of all the thoughts about why this festival is there and what is going on and just said to myself be here, now and focus and shoot. And keep a smiling face all the time and just be curious, that’s it.

Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer
Thaipusam 2014 Singapore | Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer

Here is, in essence, what I learnt (when approaching something new and doing any project, especially a culture, art or photography project):

  1. Say no to ugly/negative thoughts instantly and reprogram yourself to think positive thoughts. Forcing the mind to think positive deliberately made me experience a new level of energy rather than getting carried away to some unwanted place, feeling tired and drained, etc.
  2. Be curious and wondering, especially when you encounter something that you cannot explain. Thaipusam is like that, inexplicable, irrational and quite a colourful spiritual spectacle. Rational and subjective minds like most of us will be biased and offer shallow explanations. Don’t go there.
  3. Have the classic beginner’s mind approach. It’s very difficult to practice. Just give it a try. My former boss always used to point out this aspect. Try to see the world with a beginner’s mind. It is the idea of Zen and very allowing.
  4. Keep doing your stuff, take a break now and then and keep saying thank you… in case you didn’t know: this is totally freeing. As a photographer you are bound to to do something. Correct exposure? Focus? Timing? Just do your stuff and don’t worry too much — but every once in a while sit down and clean up your act and say, “Thanks, thanks, thanks.” Remind yourself of the fact that you are the lucky one who has the chance to be there and shoot and create those bright memories.
  5. Absorb the knowledge and the stuff around you slowly. Events like the Thaipusam festival are huge dramas, so savor the moment. There is someone who is getting pierced with small silver spears; someone just walked out from a bath, is all wet and carrying a pot of milk; someone is having a fit and breaking totally loose, experiencing god/spirit; someone is staring at your camera but has a spear right across his mouth; someone is totally shaved and his head is covered in sandalwood paste… sounds all weird and totally unusual, not? It feels like a dream. Just enjoy. You are right there and right now in the middle of all this. Just look and shoot and enjoy.
Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer is involved in marketing, coaching, psychometry and photography.

He has been doing photography right from his college years. A graduate in chemistry, in his student days he was the secretary of the Loyola Art and Photographic Society helping to promote art, culture and photography. He has experimented with many photographic film and digital formats and is a design lover, painter and visual artist. He finds that this sense of art appreciation, his love of chemistry and design helps him in his regular job as a coach,trainer marketing insight professional.

He started doing active digital photography work early 2009 and has set himself a goal, following Malcolm Gladwell‘s advice to do 10K+ hours of photogrpahy work by 2017, has already done over 6k+ hours and won a few awards for his work.

Ramesh still uses the classic Contax and Canon 35mm film cameras. For more of his work visit his Thaipusam 2014 Singapore gallery, Revive Ramesh website, Google+ or Tumblr.