A large sign that says “tonsorial station” is the first sign that I might not understand the full implications of this pilgrimage.
The name alone makes me ponder the legacy of the British Empire as I search my memory files for the meaning of the word. I explore the long shed of a building that the sign is attached to. The scene inside is other worldly.
A long row of hairdressers sit crosslegged wielding nothing but an old fashioned “cut throat” razor. They are shaving the heads of an endless line of men, some women and children of both sexes. Hindus believe that your hair is the most important natural gift that the gods bestow on you, and as a sign of devotion they should have it shaved off at least once during their lives. Are they also taught that no modern implements like scissors or better still clippers should be used? It seems that thousands of these devotoes have decided today is the day for this tonsorial treat.
After shaving, their heads are anointed with a rather strange yellow substance which prevents against cuts and infections.
Just after this pilgrimage there is an announcement that in future all the barbers must be younger than 60. The reason given is that when one is over 60 your hands start to shake which makes shaving a risky proposition. Dear reader, just think of the number of nasty cuts and ear amputations that must have happened during previous tonsorial sessions for this new rule to be introduced so soon after the event.
I thought that going without sex and alcohol for 6 weeks, walking for three days without shoes, and shaving your head would be more than enough to prove your devotion, but the tonsorial station is just another side show compared to what we see next. There are some devotees of Lord Murugan who take it a step further.
And when I say a step further, it is more of giant leap. These fanatics consider that a little (or a lot) of self mutilation really shows your full devotion to Lord Murugan. The most common form of this is taking a very long and hopefully very sharp spear and pushing it through one cheek and out the other. It is a horrifying sight made even more strange by the fact that there is not one drop of blood to be seen. How can that be? The wound isn’t even red
It’s like flossing taken to extremes
Some take it a step further and push a needle through their tongue as well
In an effort to make it less grotesque than it really is, they then decorate these objects of torture with gold chains and precious stones, presumably in the hope that it makes it more of an attractive look. In a horrific sort of way it works. But as the thought of having my ear pierced gives me the shudders, I think I will remain unadorned
But there are fanatics, and then there are FANATICS
Take this young man appears to be pulling a cart behind him
when I look closer the ropes are actually attached to two hooks which are pushed through the skin of his back
This must be incredibly painful, but the young mans face shows no sign of it. Instead his expression is hauntingly sad.
It is a face that I will never be able to forget. This man will pull the cart for an entire day. At the end of his very personal pilgrimage he will not seek any doctor’s help. Instead he will rub holy ash into his wounds. They will heal without leaving a scar.
And the same goes for the other self mutilations.
At this point I should advise any of you who are squeamish not to look at the following photos, although now your interest has been piqued I am not sure it is possible to drag you away.
The fanaticism of a few devotees seems to know no bounds. Another young man pulls a much heavier wagon behind him that requires many more hooks
And then there are those who have never heard of the expression “If life serves you lemons ……………”. This time they do not make lemonade.
Watching these fanatics is like watching a car accident. You can’t stop looking. But after a while we can take no more. We have to leave
I have seen sights that assault my senses and emotions and defy my imagination, but it has been an important day for me. I have learned one very important lesson.
I know that if I ever become a Hindu, I can choose the god I want to worship. I now know that my god will not be the great Lord Murugan