Ken insists that the bloodied Indian man waddling barefoot on the freeway overpass is “dressed as a sweaty fruit stand.” The dozen or so coconuts hooked to the man’s rolling flesh do give that impression. But for a fruit stand there is a lot of blood. There are also a disconcerting number of knives and tridents deeply wedged into his general facial region. I insist there is a deeper significance to this man’s masochism, who at present is being hauled forward by fishhooks piercing his stretched gut. A nearby booth gives us free chocolate milk, so we sip and deliberate the peculiar occasion of Thaipusam amidst the throng of three hundred thousand riled devotees.
Long ago on the Indian subcontinent, two surprisingly pronounceable clans, the Asuras and Devas, were embroiled in perennial conflict. The imperiled Devas, certain of their demise, appealed to the Lord Shiva for help. Shiva then spawned Lord Murugan, and Shiva’s wife, Parvati, entrusted Murugan with a godly spear with which to thwart the encroaching Asura forces. The Asuras were of course butchered, because as fate would cruelly have it, Murugan became not only the God of War, but conveniently enough, the God of Victory as well. Thaipusam is thus held each year to commemorate the auspicious and merciful intervention of Lord Murugan. In addition to more customary tributes in the form of ceremonial idols and milk and fruit offerings, worshippers induce otherworldly trance states and ritually mutilate themselves to honor their eternal bondage to Murugan and seek his continued support in preventing all future calamity.
It’s two in the morning. I wriggle myself into the epicenter of a transfixed audience only to behold an elderly fellow carefully stab a metal skewer through a banana. He withdraws the skewer and meditates on it; I assume he’s ravaged the fruit in effigy to save us all from the morbid sight of a far gorier mutilation. But tossed to the ground, the banana served only to sterilize the blade. For in one seamless operation, the man summons a woman from the audience, gains access to her shivering tongue, and plunges the blade clean through her taste buds. Blood gurgles from the contours of her pulsating tongue, the impaled muscle now a distended spectacle for all to admire. A child of the Internet, I thought I’d seen it all. But no, never this!
A contagious onslaught of goose bumps overtakes the crowd and no doubt all are stricken with the haunting caress of the supernatural. And I’ve run out of chocolate milk. The woman’s eyes seem to double in diameter, her pupils engorged with incredible fervor. She yelps and breaks into quick angular movements, a mesmerizing dance channeling the frantic whims of some demonic poltergeist within. The tepid air is rife with blood, sweat, and burning incense. We make quick eye contact through a veil of smoke and I meet the gaze of something that is very viscerally not human. Like exchanging glances with an intuitively paranormal sentience, only these eyes are subsumed by raw, transcendent euphoria. I quickly look down, and glancing up again see the old man piercing another tongue, another cheek, and now the bloodied and hooked backs of his other kin. The circle I’ve stumbled upon is a family, and the old wrinkled patriarch is dutifully incurring the pain and ecstasy of hardcore devotion.
After incidentally trampling at least three stray children in the massive crowds, I run into another Fulbrighter, Max, who convinces me to climb the stairs and breach the caves with him. He was a swimmer in college, so breath stroking through a lake of sweat and human slime is easy for him. I too have a background writhing through otherwise impenetrable walls of barking, bloody, slippery masses, so we glide quite smoothly through it all. At several points we get shoved into air bubbles, where riled up men with tridents through their heads gurgle and shriek and drag fistfuls of cigars to lessen the blood loss and prolong the euphoria. Max and I switch to drinking 100Plus, a beloved national beverage and a carbonated analog of PCP, and find our way into the main procession leading up a massive flight of stairs into the caves.
Once inside the mouth of the cavern, makeshift vendors hawk lava lamp displays of lord Shiva, dried shrimp crackers, Angry Birds key chains, and plastic castings of the Petronas “twin towers”. The crowd is too congested to move forward, and an idling woman with blood dribbling down the side of her chin peruses the postcards of past devotees on display. Down below, where the crowds thin out, worshippers drop off their various penances to Murugan. Hindu priests help unhook sacrificial vessels of milk from people’s backs. The warmed milk, now turned a delectable pink by stray flecks of blood, is poured into cavernous pits and wells, where some thirsty deity must slurp it all up into the astral plane. The whir of prayer, pain, and utter relief reverberates throughout the massive cave complex to create an oppressive white noise that drowns out all much needed commentary.
It’s a glimpse into the collective consciousness, being engulfed in the cacophony of twenty thousand souls huddled together vocalizing themselves within this limestone cavity. The rank smells of bodily excretions, corporeal rot, and discarded milk in the musky, humid cavern formed millions of years ago makes it all the more primordial. It penetrates and consumes the senses like a pungent reminder of our shared humanity. The girls in front of us are taking selfies on their iPhones. Anyone who leaves the caves not spiritually shaken is a sociopath. And anyone who leaves the caves not utterly disgusted by the human species has the sensual awareness of Helen Keller sleeping. A passing Indian man slaps me in the stomach then gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up.