I always seem to have astonishing “event luck” when travelling. During my European travels I happened upon Siena, Italy on the day of the famous palio (a bareback no-rules horserace around the village square in which half the field typically comes to grief in the first circuit, the manic, rearing horses doped to the eyeballs with amphetamines…people travel from everywhere to witness this chaotic event, which I had never heard of, my dumb luck dropping me right on the hearth of the city early on the morning of the race). Hitching in England, I was set down in Stratford-upon-Avon on Shakespeare’s birthday, initially clueless as to the significance of the day, and ended up scoring one of the last tickets – student price – to a magical performance that evening of Twelfth Night by the Royal Shakespeare Company. From Paris, I got a lift straight to Munich for the Oktoberfest and was put up by a friend of the driver who lived a short walk away from the Oktoberfest grounds. And there are many etceteras.
That was way back in the early 80s. It had been a long time between trips overseas when we set off for 3 weeks in Malaysia last month – yet my run of event luck resumed at our first stop, Melaka!
On the last of our three days in that most lovely of ancient port cities, we witnessed an annual procession that locals translated as The Carrying of The Kavadi, an Indian festival in honour of the female goddess Amah. The staff at the wonderful Puri Hotel where we were staying (exquisitely refurbished in classic Peranakan style, in centuries past the Puri was the home of a member of Melaka’s Chinese elite), impressed on us that we were very lucky to have been in Melaka on this day. And so we were, for while Indian festivals are commonplace, this was one out of the box. Tamil in origin but long banned in India, the Kavadi Festival now occurs only in three cities in Malaysia, Melaka being one of them.
The procession begins at one of the Hindu temples and makes its way through the picturesque main streets of Melaka’s Chinatown area, to end at the main temple. Participants are barefooted; we were told that the gods usually send rain in the early hours of morning, so the pavements are cool for the walkers – and indeed, this was the case this day.
The crowd, garbed in yellow and orange, are showered with yellow-coloured water along the way by onlookers, who also offer incense and flowers, and pound coconuts down on the pavement. If the coconuts shatter into pieces, the thrower is cleansed of negativity (not dissimilar to Catholic Confession); if the coconut fails to break, it is a sign that they have inner tensions and issues that need to be resolved before they can move on with their lives unencumbered, and a warning that until they address their problems, they are doomed to bad luck in the year ahead.
I was surprised to see more than a smattering of Chinese faces amongst the Indians in the procession. The Puri staff advised that Chinese folk with Indian partners often participated in the Indian festivals, as did other Chinese who believed in the Hindu gods while retaining their own Chinese Buddhist – or even Christian – beliefs! Indians may also take part in Chinese Buddhist festivals, and often do so.
This sharing in each others’ religious beliefs and traditions apparently takes place throughout Malaysia, with the exception of the Muslims, who adhere exclusively to Islamic religious practice. Further, we were told that Malaysian law forbids any intermarriage between Muslims and people of other faiths, unless the non-Muslim partner converts to Islam. “Religious police” ensure that this law is strictly enforced.
But back to the procession, and here’s the part that dropped our jaws. Some of the male participants fast for several days before the festival to “cleanse themselves”, and prior to setting out on the procession, pierce themselves through the cheeks and mouth with metal rods. As can be seen from the pics below, which I snapped as I followed the procession along, these are indeed rods, not the lightweight piercing that a Gen Y-er might sport!
Some walkers are yoked to ornamental carts by way of multiple sharp hooks penetrating the flesh of their backs, and others bear the kavadi, a large metal frame decorated with coloured paper, tinsel and fruit, and attached to the body with dozens of thin spears, the sharp tips lodged in the chest, back, stomach and sides. The bearers of the kavadi and pierced men join the procession, often in trance, dancing the steps of ancestral ages, allegedly possessed by various Hindu gods. We were told they feel no pain and do not bleed if they are properly “cleansed” in the pre-procession rituals; bleeding when pierced is a considered a sign of impurity, and anyone who bleeds is precluded from taking part in the procession. However, I saw one pierced teenage boy in obvious physical distress, assisted on his way by concerned-looking women – possibly his mother and sisters – who propped him up on either side as he struggled on, grimacing, on the verge of collapse.
Among the walkers was one of the hotel staff, affectionately known as Aunty Jo, who had educated us about the Kavadi Festival the previous day. A wise, wizened and obviously erudite elderly Indian woman with a keen interest in local history, Aunty Jo danced past us as we watched on from the steps of the Puri Hotel, blind to her fellow staff members who joked as she whirled by, in trance, uttering incantations in otherworldly tongues, hostage to one of her gods.
I came to realise that it was not so much the sensationalist aspects of the Kavadi Festival – the gruesome piercings and the walkers in trance – that so fascinated me. Rather, it was the sense that these people were united in a community of understanding and a devotion to their faith that I could not comprehend or share in, and that made Western religious practice seem bland and sanitised, devoid of real, demonstrated conviction. These strange alien gods of the Hindu world that, like the figures of the Australian Aboriginal Dreaming, I couldn’t help but to regard as mere figments of an ancient imagination, captivating and poetic, but impossible to take seriously as authentic deities, were as real as any Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha to these people of modern Malaysia, and that I found extremely moving.
There was great power in belief so strong, expressed with that primal, undeniable dignity, that left me feeling at once empty yet full of a sudden and unaccountable yearning for…what? Something that ran through the very marrow of these people, a pure transporting community of spirit and ritualistic tradition – an unquestioning sense of identity – long lost to the West. Though I kept my thoughts and feelings to myself, I could not speak for some time after the procession had passed.