| Faith across cultures (by Himanshu Bhatt)|
Spiritual brothers ... Hamish McCombie (left) and Nelson (right) accompanied and cared for Shan for the entire duration of the walk.
"What can we do? Can we also break coconuts?" Hamish McCombie asked nervously in the Hindu temple at six in the morning.
The bare-chested New Zealander was an impressive sight. Dressed in a traditional veshti, the south Indian loin robe, and smeared with ceremonial ashes, he clasped his palms, copying the few Indian devotees that had gathered there.
Around him, the temple bells ringed, chants vibrated through the air amid packed scent of incense and flowers.
Hamish may have looked impressive, but the purpose of his being in the temple was even more remarkable. The young man and his friend Nelson Glass were letting themselves be drawn deep into the heart of one of Penang's most sensational and mystical events, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Though the festival is known more for the spectacle of devotees piercing themselves with hooks and spears, the true significance of the annual event is not of the physical, but of the ethereal human spirit.
It is often said that Thaipusam is a religious festival of sheer faith. If this observance be indeed true, then the story of how Hamish and Nelson met long-time devotee Shan Pillai on Thaipusam day can readily testify to the assertion.
After participating in the recent festivities in Penang in January, Shan certainly has a story to tell; that of a quirky and remarkable incident he will remember for years to come.
It is the story of faith that brought together two guileless Kiwi backpackers drifting through the silent pre-dawn streets of George Town, and a forlorn Hindu devotee looking for company to help perform his pilgrim procession.
The quaint story may well demonstrate a unique miracle meeting of sincere souls that the spirit of Thaipusam is all about.
Shan had been carrying the kavadi, the ceremonial gear that symbolises the Hindu devotee's spiritual sacrifice, for many years at Thaipusam festivities in Kuala Lumpur. Last January, he decided to perform the rites in Penang.
But in the dim early morning hours of Thaipusam, the 39-year old engineer found himself all alone at an unusually desolate temple in Datuk Keramat Road where he was to start his pilgrim journey with his kavadi.
"I didn't have anybody with me. I was alone the whole night before and it was already past five in the morning," Shan, a graduate from Oxford, said in an interview later. "I had told some friends that I wanted to carry the kavadi, but they were all busy attending to their relatives and friends."
Enter Hamish and his friend Nelson, a pair of 27-year old New Zealanders touring the world. The duo, on a short visit to Penang, had heard about Thaipusam, and were wandering around the city on foot trying be part of the event. And that's when they came across Shan, sitting alone outside the temple with his kavadi and hoping for company.
The two Kiwis spotted Shan and his kavadi, and casually asked about the festival. In response, Shan invited them to be his pilgrim companions and follow him during the procession.
Within moments, the two sporting blokes from Christchurch found themselves seated outside the temple porch, chatting and joking with Shan, while waiting nervously to help him prepare for the procession.
HR. Rajayogan Ramayah helping Hamish and Nelson put on the vesthi in preparation for their journey of faith.
And over the next few hours, Hamish and Nelson were to experience a unique endeavour of faith, perseverance and the human spirit transcending across cultures. Volunteers appeared to help them wear the veshti and place ceremonial ashes on their bodies. The duo stood by Shan while the same volunteers helped him with the kavadi and pierced his body gently with ceremonial hooks.
After a while, they were even earnestly joining in the incantations of "Vel! Vel!" with others during the procession.
"It's amazing for me to see the amount of faith Shan has. He is very calm considering what he's going through. I am honoured by what he's doing. I can relate to him across cultures," Hamish said at the temple. "In New Zealand, we never go through this much sacrifice for religion."
Calm and in repose, Shan carries his kavadi while pierced with ceremonial hooks and small spears.
One of the volunteers who came to help Shan was veteran R. Rajayogan Ramayah. "When I saw Shan sitting alone, I told him I would try to send some friends over. He just said that God will send someone. Then something happened and this two young men appeared. I was taken aback," Raja said.
Hamish and Nelson faithfully tended to Shan all along the foot procession that ends at the famous hilltop temple in Waterfall. According to Shan, the experience of undergoing the Thaipusam ritual brings about in him a profound indescribable feeling of spiritual cleansing.
In order to prepare for the event, he had to fast and refrain from drinking alcohol during the days leading to the festival. When eating, he observed a strict vegetarian diet.
"My business was badly hit a few years ago during the economic crisis," he added. "I also had serious personal problems. I took the kavadi to ask for God's forgiveness, and have been doing so every year since."
Shan has felt much positive change, not only to his life circumstances, but also to his personality. "I feel more calm and composed. I can feel people responding to me properly in my daily life."
In the same vein, Raja, a 54-year old former Penang Port official who voluntarily helps devotees like Shan every year, had strong advice to offer. "When I was young, I used to pierce myself to show off my big kavadis. I even used to pull chariots with hooks.
"But now that I am older, I am wiser. It is wrong to think that Thaipusam is about physical penance; it is about getting in touch with your spiritual side. I always advice youngsters to focus more on their religious vows instead of emphasising on piercing themselves with big hooks," he said.
Shan takes a rest while Nelson and Hamish checks on him.
In an e-mail message from New Zealand some days later, Hamish described how his family and friends were fascinated by his story. "It was interesting to learn something about the Hindu religion," he wrote.
Indeed, if the experience had a message, it was that Thaipusam is not just an exhibition of physical prodigy; but an event that gives a unique glimpse of the strength and will of the human spirit.
Nelson (left) and Hamish walking behind Shan in his kavadi as they reach the final stretch of their journey at the foot of the Hilltop Temple.
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The webmasters of Kaumaram.com sincerely thank Mr. Himanshu Bhatt for his kind permission to reproduce
this article and pictures. Mr. Himanshu Bhatt is a journalist based in Penang, Malaysia.
Other articles in Kaumaram.com by the same writer:
The Secret Perch of Muruga
On the Crest of Prayer
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