OVER the next few days, many Tamils will take part in an annual Hindu ceremony that involves amazing endurance. The keenest participants in the Thaipusam festival prepare with days of fasting, prayer and austere living. Then they have their skin pierced by sharp objects, which range from single needles to chunky skewers that pass through both cheeks. They trudge barefoot, or on shoes spiked with nails, to a temple dedicated to the god Murugan. Some carry elaborate bamboo canopies on their shoulders. Others drag chariots which are attached to the hooks that pass through their skin.
This may be an extreme case, but it is by no means the only instance where rites of communal and religious importance are seen as inseparable from pain or risk. During the Shia Muslim commemoration known as Ashura, which mourns the martyrdom of Hussein in the year 680AD, devout men emulate their hero’s fate by whipping themselves into a bloody mess with chains. And in Ireland, even as conventional forms of worship lose traction, there is no shortage of takers for…Continue reading