Penang, Malaysia

Until this tower appeared glowing out of the thick Malaysian night, the Thaipusam festival seemed to be nothing more than thousands of Hindus milling aimlessly about on dark roads. When the tower broke the darkness the crowd came alive. People began frantically smashing coconuts on the ground where they exploded like gunshots. For ten minutes, as the tower lumbered towards us under oxen power, coconut milk ran off the road like rain. Just before the tower pulled up to where we had gathered, three men in small tractors blasted through the crowd, plowing the coconuts to the side of the road in ragged heaps. The tractors belched hot diesel and the drivers didn't seem to caret if they ran anyone over. Ineffective police men with whistles added to the madness and generally got in the way. Once the road was clear the tower rolled up and stopped, or sort of. The pair of oxen pulling the tower needed convincing to remain standing in the jostling crowd.

Hundreds of people pushed their way towards the tower carrying silver trays laden with bananas, incense, fabric, flowers and broken bits of coconut shell. Young men in white robes took the offering plates and selected an item, usually the fabric and tossed it onto the tower's altar. The tower itself was beautiful, appointed with tiny lights and colorful flowers and ribbons. A big shirtless guy rested in the tower and would occasionally bless the plates being passed his way. He wore a heavy bead necklace and a shimmering silk sarong. According to Shiva, a taxi driver we met the next day, the man had participated in Thaipusam's famed ritual piercings.

Before passing back the offering plates, the young men would set fire to the inside of the coconut and put a dash of white powder on the platter. The faithful would then sweep their hands over the flaming coconut two or three times, bringing their hands close to their face reverently. Then they would smear a line of the white powder across their foreheads. Parents would sweep the fire and anoint their children in the same manner.

While most of the crowd were of Indian ancestry, a handful of Malaysia's Chinese Hindus also took part in the festival. They were the only people besides ourselves not dressed in Hindu finery: brightly colored dresses with hints of gold woven throughout, crisp white robes and gaudy bangle bracelets. We saw two other foreigners the entire evening, though Penang itself is overrun with Lonely Planet backpacker types.

The glowing tower remained parked for half an hour as people flocked to it. Eventually the crowd thinned and the oxen were set back in motion. We followed the cart and discovered that the annual festival was exactly this: smashing coconuts and making offerings. The coconuts are an offering to higher powers, requesting good fortune for the coming year. There's a certain amount of arithmetic involved; people attempting to put bad luck behind them or hoping for recovery from an illness will smash hundreds or even thousands of coconuts.

We eventually walked three miles back to our hotel, following a trail a coconuts piled high along the roadside awaiting the arrival of the tower. The festival lasts three days and each night it's the same. As we walked back we found several temporary roadside shrines where Hindus passed out candy and beverages to the assembled throngs. A man gave us plastic bags filled with chick peas and rice and we ate a spicy veggie burger sitting in the grass next to the road, waiting for the tower to turn the corner.

Thaipusam is most widely known in the west for the freakish images of body piercing affiliated with it. At least in certain circles, the acts of self-abnegation are held in high regard for their severity and creativity. Our taxi driver Shiva explained how to prepare for the daunting task of piercing oneself with needles a hundred or more times. "Fifteen days, no laying with women. Not even wife. No ganja. No alcohol. Coffee okay, but not sitting in cafe. You must sleep at a temple or outside. You eat only bananas and bread." Following this strict regimen should allow one to stick any variety of sharp objects through one's various body parts and feel no pain. While browsing in a shop, I saw two Hindu men galloping past. They were both wearing coats of silver balls hung from their skin by fish hooks. One man had a 1/2" piece of steel piercing both cheeks. From my vantage point, extreme pain and joyous religious fervor looked very similar indeed.
Self-abnegation, while important, plays a small role in the overall festival.

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