On February 11th the annual Thaipusam [wikipedia.org] festival took place here in Singapore. The festival, celebrated mostly by Tamil Hindus, is a celebration of the birth of Lord Murugan [wikipedia.org] and the day his mother, Pavarti [wikipedia.org] gave him a spear to vanquish a demon.
Whatever the details are about the origins of the festival the striking feature of the festival to an outsider today is the Mortification of the Flesh associated with thevel kavadi, vel meaning spear and kavadi meaning burden. The vel kavadi is basically a portable alter carried above the head and shoulders and attached to the body by a number of vels piercing the flesh.
While there were a large number of vel kavadi, some up to two meters tall, there were also a lot of other types of mortification. Some people had small hooks in their legs, back or chest each attached to an orange or lime. Others carried kavadi but rather than having them attached by spear like vels they had them attached by hooks on ropes or jeweled chains.
I understand that the festival is outlawed in India and the largest festivals today are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia and in Singapore. As one of the guys hanging out with me the day of the festival said: ‘this is the most interesting thing to happen in Singapore.’