Written on 17 January 2019
I arrived in Singapore in January 1965 on attachment to HQ Far East Air Force where I was to be employed writing operational war plans for aircraft likely to be involved in operations during the so-called Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia. As it happens, I arrived during Thaipusam, which is both a major religious festival and one of the best known tourist events – at least it was when I witnessed it on Sunday 17 January 1965.
I learned that in the weeks before the event, Hindu devotees had prepared themselves for the celebrations by cleansing through prayer and fasting. On the day of the festival, many of them, including young children, shave their heads. The adults then undertake a pilgrimage along a set route, several miles long, while engaging in various acts of devotion, including the carrying of elaborate kavadi (burdens). The mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue and cheeks with skewers is also common, as can be seen in several of my photographs. The piercing of the cheeks and tongue must have been not only painful but intensely uncomfortable as it was impossible for the devotee to lick his lips or move his jaw.
Here are some of my photographs taken on 17 January 1965
I felt rather uncomfortable taking those photographs, thinking that perhaps the devotees would have preferred some privacy – if only from tourists. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Many Europeans turned out with their cameras and many were far more intrusive than I was. Bear in mind that the temperature in Singapore was around 33°C with a humidity around 95% – in other words it was very uncomfortable. Amongst the huge crowds, the temperature and humidity were probably several degrees higher still and the large amounts of incense being burnt not only added a haze to the photographs and a delightful aroma to the air, but also added to the heat and undoubtedly the discomfiture of the devotees. Large numbers of musicians also added to the sense of occasion.
The procession started at the Sri Srinivasa Permal Temple in Serangoon Road (the top image), and wound through Orchard Road and Penang Road before ending at another temple in Tank Road (the last image). The devotees I saw at the end of the procession in 1965 showed no signs of bleeding or injury from the piercings and few showed any sign of distress through heat stroke. In the 54 years since I was there, Singapore has changed out of all recognition, but I understand this festival still takes place every year.