Human beings cannot just sit still and wait for the Gods to help them; they have to take the initiative in the struggle against evil. This, more or less, is the Hindu-Tamils’ philosophy of life. Its followers practice the tenet by performing various religious ceremonies or rites. Of the most important, are the offering ceremonies, such as Pangguni Uttiram.
Pangguni Uttiram is an annual traditional event performed in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Indonesians can only witness the custom in Lubukpakam, North Sumatra, and this year it will be staged on April 15. Though the event has its roots in India and Sri Lanka, it has in recent years gained more prominence as one of Indonesia’s must-see religious festival, which never fails to draw people’s attention.
Locals and tourists alike flock to watch the series of ceremonies, particularly the ritual piercing of the participants’ bodies.
The name Pangguni Uttiram comes from an Indian phrase referring to the full moon of the Pankuni month, which is the 12th month in the Hindu Calendar.
During this sacred time, Hindu-Tamils carry out religious rites for the Gods every time the moon hangs brightly in the sky. Pangguni Uttiram is performed to celebrate what is believed to be the birthday of Murugar, the Hindu god of war, victory, wisdom and love. To Hindus worldwide, Murugan is a God of great powers, but one who is merciful, protecting and compassionate.
Sacrifices made to the son of Shiva and Parvati is believed to augment his power, one method of which involves piercing.
Devotees may also participate in the self-piercing ritual to repay the granting of a wish or promise made to the deity. Abstinence is a crucial element of the sacrifice, by refraining from eating food with meat and from sex for a week to several months, depending on the vow.
This annual tradition was brought back to life in Indonesia — at Shri Thendayudabani Lubukpakam Temple in Deliserdang district, around 20kilometers from the provincial capital Medan — after a long ban by the New Order regime.
I was lucky enough to witness the unique ceremonies last year.
The sun was reaching its zenith as the parading group of Pangguni Uttiram finished their ablutions at Tangsi River, which has been sanctified like the Gangga in India. Curious hordes of locals flocked to he site, lured by the Indian percussion music and the clanking sounds of cymbals from the dragon dance performance.
During the three-kilometer procession, the parade leader would stop every now and then to rest from bearing the weight of the piercings adorning his body. No one wore footwear, except one man who had one a pair of spiked sandals. The sizzling heat and dusty road only seemed to add to their suffering.
“Vell Muruga Vell, Vell Murugan, Vell, Vell, Vell, Vetri, Vell!” praises to Murugan echoed through the main roads of Lubukpakam City.
To help ease the worshipers’ laborious journey, the ceremony committee and some volunteers sprinkled water along the road. Believing that helping the participants would bring them good luck, volunteers were also on hand to provide anyone with drinking water.
“But this is only a ritual. What is most important is practicing all these ritual values in real life,” Hindu-Tamil priest Pinandita S Anadore told me after the ceremony. He went on to explain all the “compulsory” steps that need to be carried out before the main Pangguni Uttiram ritual.
Participants who have made a vow to Murugan are required to fast for a period that is commensurate to the magnitude of the wish, generally from 7 to 41 days.
To deepen their sacrifice and devotion to the God of Tamils, devotees who choose to pierce themselves stay in the temple to isolate themselves from the outside world.
The ritual of piercing, or Vel Kavadi, involves a large, portable shrine that is attached to the devotees’ body with long, metallic rods, or vels, pierced into the chest and back. The ritual is conducted by the river to represent the arduous process toward self-purification. Uniquely, a person’s age, sex and ethnicity are not specified for this religious service.
“Vetrivel muruganeke… Aerogara!”
The mantra pulls participants into a trance, blocking any traces of pain as the rods pierce into their skin. The parts of the body must be pierced in the right order, which starts from the right cheek into the mouth then through the left cheek, using a hook-shaped iron bar.
According to the priest, if a participant is sincere in his or her sacrifice, not one drop of blood will be shed by their bodies. If blood begins to spill, it reflects the participant’s lack of devotion.
The Pangguni Uttiram ritual comes from the story of Goddess Parvati who gave Murugan the gift of a spear, which symbolizes the endless battle raging with the enemy within: the desires that weaken our spirits.
The procession ended at Shri Thendayudabani Temple on Hasanuddin Street. The little Hindu temple was decorated with chains of flowers on the roof.
Arriving at the temple, the pierced devotees entered the main building, where they received blessings of spells and prayers from the priest. The participants then released the piercings from their bodies.
Other devotees, those who didn’t join the Vel Kavadi, brought offerings of food, fruits and vegetables, and prayed with both their hands upon their head.
Those who had taken off their piercings proceeded to bathe at a well in the temple’s garden. The well-tended trees and flowers provided ample shading from the blazing sun.
The devotees, whose descendants hail from Madras, India, were obviously enjoying the day of worship and sacrifice; they clasped hands, hugged and chatted amongst themselves with warm smiles on their faces. Families were in attendance; small children were cuddled by their mothers, while their older siblings played freely in the temple gardens.