Spellbound in Melaka

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.

14 thoughts on “Spellbound in Melaka”

  1. I find it interesting – incredible, even – that people can put so much confidence & self-assurance in their religious beliefs. I don’t understand it whatsoever. To me, it’s schizophrenia – literally. Sure, everyone with half a brain will at some point stop to consider the “larger picture”, the great “cosmic” questions of their existence, the possibility of a god or gods or aliens or whatever, the possibility of some kind of afterlife, etc etc… Where did the universe come from? Is it infinite? What’s beyond? etc etc etc…

    Science is a step forward, but there is so much territory still uncharted. All we really have, ultimately, as feeble & anxious human mosquitoes buzzing over this little rock called Earth, are our inner intuitions, our gut instincts.

    I have my gut instincts about things, things on a cosmic scale. They are personal & original & certainly not borrowed second-hand from somebody else’s dogmatic nonsense. But do I “KNOW”, with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY, that my gut instincts are TRUE??? Of COURSE not! They are just gut instincts – a “feeling” of how things are, and why they are, in the grand scheme of things. It is just a feeling, tho’ it is most certainly fuelled by my extensive reading of cosmology, quantum physics, stuff like that – as well as, perhaps, pulp sci-fi from the ’50s! Maybe you could call it an “educated guess”, a “reading between the lines” of all my sensory input throughout my life.

    But do I stake my entire life on this flimsy ephemeral worldview that I keep tucked away inside? NO! For all I know, the universe may indeed be a freak physical “accident”. There may be no “god” entities. Death may very well be the complete dissolution of our oh-so valuable Self. There may be no other dimensions, no higher realms, no parallel universes, no “Beyond”.

    Who knows? ANSWER = NOT A SINGLE SOUL ON THIS PLANET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    And yet, look around, 99% of humanity fervently believe they KNOW – (tho’ strangely they don’t all agree with each other’s “knowledge”!)…

    It’s a desperation, a self-brainwashing. Ultimately it arises from a deep, fundamental TERROR in all of us. Something so scary it can not be consciously considered – it must be BURIED, repressed, covered up, hid!!! But it cannot be erased. Just as we cannot “wipe away” the universe that surrounds us – tho’ we can, of course, pluck out our eyes so we don’t have to see it anymore.

    Thus, I see 99% of humanity as walking around in this kind of zombified stupor, a fuzzy dreamland. Happy faces & beaming smiles ALWAYS (for me) bely that inner dread in all of us. And people continue to breed like fucking rabbits. Oi vay.

    Some divine intervention in my life, something personal & spiritual & profound & fundamental, would be very nice indeed! But it will never happen. And those who claim to have been “touched” or “blessed” or whatever are just deceiving themselves as well as others, borne out of spiritual desperation. The mind can play some funny tricks!

    Althought religions & their fervent, entranced adherents can be bedazzling & astonishing to outside observers, well, I think you get the gist of what I REALLY think of these fucked-up worthless expendable human garbageheaps.

    Clean the fucking slate, let’s start again.


    End of rant!

  2. Sylvan,

    I get what you’re saying about finding people’s self-assurance that they have it right in their choice of religion irritating. The element that explains it, though, is a simple yet complex one: faith. By nature, that is never rational, except on an emotional/spiritual level – which is a plane on which it simply cannot be denied! – and that is an experience that eludes effective communication from one to another. That barrier is what I was trying to describe in the blog.

    Did you see Richard Dawkins’ doco that featured recently on the ABC’s “Compass”, in which he was pitting his aetheism against religion? A lot of what he was saying made good sense, BUT he himself was every bit as arrogant and emotional and self-righteous in his conviction that he is RIGHT as the religious zealots he was targeting – in fact, at times, more so!

    That self-righteousness is a problem for me, whatever the person’s convictions, because at the bottom of it is inevitably ego! And that is always the main ingredient in delusionary thinking. A rampant ego is like an hallucinogenic that distorts clear thinking in such a way as to make it seem hyper-clear and preclude any alternative view. I think you were very wise in your comment that NO ONE KNOWS. That’s about the only metaphysical certainty there is!

    But if no one knows, why such rancour towards those who have made a choice of committing to an established religion? There is surely shelter from the existential terror you mention and comfort in belonging to a mass religion – the power of which was quite overwhelming at the Melaka festival.

    As I wrote, I find it impossible to contemplate the Hindu gods as “real” deities, but I could not deny the conviction of belief I witnessed. Is that not a reality in itself that could be compelling, especially for those who have been brought up within the Hindu faith – so compelling as to inspire literal belief in the Hindu gods? If so, why despise them for their faith? Perhaps because, as you say, it is disturbing for those too “rational” to believe. Which brings us to that old philosophical chestnut: can the whole world be accessed and contained through reason and science alone?

    I think not. I’m no Shakespeare nut, but a line from “Hamlet” has been echoing through my head from the moment I first encountered it, waaay back in high school: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That says it all, for me.

  3. I didn’t see that Dawkins docco, but I consider atheism just another religion. Skeptics & materialists shit me just as much as religious & superstitious fucknuckles. Both sides are based on “faith”. It is FAITH I’m at war with here. I think people with “faith” are fucking idiots.

    I could have “faith” in flying pink pigs from Neptune. Should others tolerate that? Sure. But what if I started a cult, and not millions, but BILLIONS, of people joined? Should that be tolerated? No. It should be removed from civilization. “Tyranny of the majority” is an evil thing for a free-thinking individual.

    Science should be brainwashed into kids from Day 1. That is the great shame of the education system. From a basis in astronomy comes maths, biology, even english & history etc. Astronomy would unite all the disciplines together. Instead, we get schizophrenically compartmentalized “subjects” taught to us. “What’s the point of all this algebrae?” we ask ourselves, not knowing then that maths lies behind the physics that empirically describes our universe, our reality.

    I totally agree, there’s more to Reality than meets the eye. But how to access that Great Unknown Territory? Faith? Intuition? No. It must be explored with microscopes & telescopes & data collected & patterns recognized & formulae derived.

    Science is dynamic & breaks frontiers on a daily basis. It is rooted in physical reality. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got. Maybe scientists will discover God in a photon, or some subatomic particle, one day. Until then, I’ll just continue to contemplate, as honestly as I can, the bizarre & terrifying predicament we are all in. And try to keep some semblance of sanity….

    I consider the human race irrepairably damaged. We can only devolve from here. It’s all finished.

  4. Sylvan,

    Many would share your view on the condition of the human race. However, I am interested in the basis on which you make your last statement. What is your reasoning, please?

    Your statement begs more questions. If you consider the human race”irrepairably damaged”, it follows logically that there must have been a time when we were in a healthy state. When do you think this was, and how do you make that assessment? When do you consider our evolution peaked, and when, how and why did we begin to devolve? Curious to know your thoughts…

  5. Just interested in how Sylvan can explain – using purely scientific methodology and not importing concepts from outside science – his feeling about “the bizarre & terrifying predicament we are all in” or his need “to keep some semblance of sanity”?

    I doubt if a random bundle of atoms could give a damn about maintaining its (or their) sanity……..or even bothering to debate about it.

  6. Science doesn’t explain consciousness. It’s the emotional impact on our consciousness that is the nightmare. The universe is just too much – and then we have to suffer personal annihilation! Nice…

    Religions purport to have all the answers, and to offer salvation (at a steep price). But if religion was real, I wouldn’t need a “church” or “mosque” or “synagogue”, I’d have direct personal access to “God(s)” myself. Surely?

    Or, do I need to stick chopsticks through my face to access the “divine”?

    It’s craziness in the extreme. My question is, how does this mass schizophrenia happen? Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d suggest a deeply repressed fear of death (or fear of life – one or the other).

  7. Well, who says you need a church to access the Divine (I thought the starting-point of Protestantism was the acceptance of personal, unmediated experience of God)? Or even chopsticks through your face? And I’m interested in your explanation of how a fear of death (even a “deeply repressed” one) can lead to physical privations that could result in death. A much better solution for such a fear, surely, would be a belief that at death, you simply have an eternal sleep rather than the prospect of Hell and Purgatory that religion offers? Hardly an ideal way of alleviating fear, I’d have thought. And why does Religion come at a “steep price”, if it’s just a way of coping with fear of death? And, given that you (in one of your alterego’s, at least) obviously believe that the spiritual is bunk why should a random bundle of quarks fear dissolution into the individual quarks?

  8. Sylvan,

    You know, although I can understand why you might see the piercing rituals etc as a sort of insanity – as I might, if I hadn’t witnessed the procession in Melaka – I can tell you that it didn’t seem crazy to me (and this was a personal realisation that was quite jolting).

    My view is that if the believers felt “cleansed” as a result of their mode of paying penance (or seeking redemption, or whatever…my understanding of the religious purpose of the event is only superficial), whether through accessing the divine, or mass hysteria, or ‘schizophrenia’ – call it what you will – then it is not crazy! It might not be ‘real’, it might be a delusion, or it might be a mystical experience beyond our comprehension. Perhaps there are many ways of accessing the divine, and this was one of them; perhaps the divine exists merely a personal concept…I really don’t know. But isn’t it a matter of whatever gets you through?

    If through their modes of religious practice these guys achieve a inner peace, a religious ecstasy, even a sense of belonging and oneness with others of their faith, why does that make them “fucked-up worthless expendable human garbageheaps”, or “fucking idiots”? Aren’t they just different from thee and me in their perceptions and cultural experience? Could it be that they have inherited some understandings, through ancient ritual and tradition, that we, in our isolation and cynicism and world-weariness, have not?

    Again, I don’t know. But I rule nothing out. And I am very aware of the fundamental role of personal perception in determining our individual views of ‘reality’.

    As to what may be behind mass religious faith – well, it might well be a terror of death for many, as you assert. More terrifying for me, though, are the moments in which I have experienced a profound sense of loneliness/aloneness, a fearful realisation that however death might come, and whenever, and in whatever form, I will have no choice but to face it alone…

    Others might accept faith as a community given, without any such terror behind it. A matter of background and experience, surely…

    All is perception, I would argue. This being so, I put it to you that it would not make rational sense to insist that ALL people everywhere are afflicted with a terror of death (or whatever), nor that this inevitably informs all religious faith.

  9. Keyser Soze, you ask me “why does Religion come at a “steep price”, if it’s just a way of coping with fear of death?”. The steep price (IMO) lies in the abolition of all reason that Religion demands – and the unquestioning embracing of magic & superstition in its place.

    Let’s get one thing straight here, “Religion” is all about faith in miracles – walking on water, parting of oceans, levitations, resurrections, etc etc – as opposed to any kind of honest personal “spirituality”, which is all about one’s personal relationship with the larger universe, perhaps even “God”.

    Religion demands more than a suspension of disbelief, but a total lobotomisation.

    Roland Stein, you say “it would not make rational sense to insist that ALL people everywhere are afflicted with a terror of death (or whatever), nor that this inevitably informs all religious faith.”

    I put it to you that not only is “religious faith” informed by subconscious fear & dread – but the ENTIRETY of human behaviour, throughout history!

    Moments of enlightenment occur when we exorcise this dark & terrible demon out of our subconscious, and confront it consciously & honestly – observe it in all its satanic glory!

  10. Sylvan,

    You champion science and reason. How is it rational to insist with absolute certainty that this “subconcious fear and dread” you refer to exists as a given for all human beings, always present, and informing all religious faith and human behaviour? Where is the scientific evidence for that? What is your reasoning?

    Why is this fear and dread to which you refer “satanic”? You believe in Satan, but not in God? Wouldn’t both be irrational superstitious nonsense, by your reasoning?

    You assert that faith is all about miracles, “as opposed to any kind of honest personal ‘spirituality’ “. This surely applies only to fundamentalist religious belief. There are clergy, for example – and senior clergy, at that – who shun literal biblical interpretation.

    Further, I think many of the faithful would content that “honest personal ‘spirituality’ ” is entirely possible within their religion of choice.

  11. Christianity does not allow a one-to-one relationship with God. Rather, it demands a mediator – Christ. That’s not honest “spirituality”. Clergy who shun the Bible, you say? I doubt that.

    I used “satanic” in a figurative/descriptive sense.

    I never professed to be a materialist, by the way. I think “consciousness” resides deep down inside the quark itself, somewhere. This whole material universe is “alive”, so to speak. It twists around upon itself like a multi-dimensional ourobouros. What’s outside it? Who knows?

    But what I “think” is beside the point.

    It’s obvious that all human idiosyncracies, throughout history, can be rooted in a fundamental existential despair. It is the “human condition” spoken about by all the classical philosophers – “the horror! the horror!” spoken by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now!

    The universe confounds all our conceptualizations. It can bedazzle & awe-inspire – but, more profoundly, it also instills anxiety & fright (if not consciously, then most definitely subconsciously).

    Do we really need laboratory experiments to collect data to formulate theories which express this fundamental human predicament? When, after all, we can simply “feel” it ourselves?

    “But I don’t ‘feel’ despairing!” I hear a lot of you plead, desperately. My answer is: “Yes you do. Even if you don’t consciously admit it!”

    Life is ultimately disturbing! It is society which pulls the wool over our eyes and distracts us from the Big Picture, with all its daily kaleidoscope of petty worldly concerns & fads & trivialities. And for those of us who perhaps pause to reflect & begin to “see through” the bullshit, there is always Religion (how convenient) to hijack & obliterate any emerging glimmer of understanding.

    This world, ultimately, is extremely controlled & manipulated.

    Not only colourful religious festivals, but ALL rituals, across ALL cultures – human behaviour in its entirety! – becomes so much shallow foolish pantomine, one big Danse Macabre.

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