Dirty dancing in Orchard Road

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The Independent Online
As human peacocks paraded through the streets and a carnival atmosphere came into full swing, Amar Grover discovered a very different face of Singapore.

This was not quite the Singapore one expected and, frankly, what a relief. I'd been hovering in a temple compound since the crack of dawn. Families clustered tightly as drastic things were done to brothers, sisters and friends. I made way for an unsteady young man in bright yellow swimming- trunks. A large, spoked frame was pinned to his torso. There were cheers and chanting. The human peacock stepped forward and embarked gingerly upon the strange road of Thaipusam.

This is the most flamboyant festival of Singapore's Hindu community. Each year on the day of the full moon in the month of Thai (late January or early February), thousands of devotees wind through four kilometres of the city's streets. Roads are blocked, traffic is diverted and even dirt makes a stately appearance. There are mounds of orchids and marigolds, sticky smashed coconuts and feverish incantations. But what really sets this spectacle apart are the kavadis.

Kavadi means, literally, "sacrifice at every step" and it surely feels just like that. Each human peacock sports a steel and aluminium cage- like frame weighing up to 20kg. Their elaborate plumage - feathers, tassels, flowers, inset pictures of idols - rests on shoulder pads yet is balanced by spokes that pierce bare chests and backs. Hooks and barbs tug none too gently; cheeks and tongues are lanced with skewers. This is faith, not mind, over matter.

Thaipusam has its roots in Tamil India. Legend relates how a simple villager embarked on a journey to pay homage to Lord Subramaniam, son of the mighty god Shiva. Milk, pots of which weighed down his shoulders, was the only modest offering, song the only effective relief. It was an arduous trek and for this penance he was handsomely blessed.

Yet there is nothing remotely pastoral about today's kavadi bearers, who are mostly urbane and unfreakish. The newspapers had sampled participants; a civil servant aged 61 (enduring this for the 30th year since being cured of cirrhosis of the liver); an insurance agent who had lost his cancerous leg, and was quoted as saying: "I keep thinking what God has done for me."

The thrust of all this display is atonement, to give thanks or fulfil vows made to Lord Subramaniam. Their everyday concerns - business prosperity, exam success, continued health or survival - are wrought larger than life. And just as reason appears suspended, pain is inhibited.

I asked about pain, but few clear answers were forthcoming. "Correct spiritual preparation is vital," lectured one young man. The peacocks fast and lead an abstinent life for at least three days, possibly a month, before the great day. Pain may indicate that preparations were not up to par, and should it be unbearable ... well, the peacock is in serious trouble.

Devotees plus entourage had gathered overnight at the Perumal Temple. There were prayers and offerings before makeshift altars. With garlanded vases balanced on their heads, women initiated the day's procession to Chettiar Temple. It is not a shy route: participants take in downtown Singapore, even skirting Orchard Road, a major shopping thoroughfare.

As drums throbbed erratically, I watched kavadis being adjusted. An ungainly fan of prongs must fit matching sockets. One lot struggled for what must have seemed an eternity to its bearer. The relief when it finally docked was unmistakable; to fail before having properly begun would be disastrous. Few can face what would amount to Lord Subramaniam's almost unheard-of rejection.

Then came oranges. Not the freshly squeezed version, but a precious casting- away-of-evil-spirits variety. Ten, 20 at a time were hung from backs, chest and thighs by barbs and hooks, as were small brass pots dribbling rivulets of milk. And finally, those long, three-pronged skewers pushed through tongues and cheeks.

Against this stoical drama, perhaps the oddest reactions were from those making most noise. A few individuals shrieked uncontrollably, twitched like rag dolls or writhed on the ground amid the mess - and they hadn't even been pricked. "It is Lord Subramaniam," observed an elderly man. "He enters the people. They have a trance." He seemed a little doubtful.

All this holiness and hysteria is, thankfully, tempered by a carnival atmosphere. Family and friends come to send off every bird of prayer and they need some light relief. Food stalls are crammed into the temple compound, and there are impromptu parties and picnics. Cafes and restaurants line the first third of the route. With all those spokes and spikes, policemen direct the flow to avoid spidery gridlocks, and ambulances hover discreetly.

I followed the procession through Little India, down Serangoon Road and on to Tank Road. Devotees strained and often nearly buckled under their loads; some leaned on walking sticks, panting. Egged on by shouts or triumphant resolve, others danced and twirled to music and song.

Hours later, at the end of it all, there is a long queue to enter Chettiar Temple. Standing in the damp heat seemed the cruellest of tests. Whatever milk remains is poured on the deity's feet, and only then will those kavadis be dismantled, barbs unhooked and skewers withdrawn. Three days later, the villager who unwittingly began it all is honoured with special prayers. And the birds anticipate a year - perhaps even a life - of happiness and prosperity.

This year the festival of Thaipusam takes place on 10 February.

Swinging into Singapore

Getting there: Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) is offering a fare of pounds 402 return on Singapore Airlines which flies direct from Heathrow or Manchester to Singapore. The same agency charges just pounds 372 if you fly on Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Singapore Airlines (0181-747 0007) has a special deal, "Singapore Spectacular", at pounds 425 including economy air fare, three nights' accommodation on a twin- sharing basis, breakfast, airport transfer and city tour, until 30 April.

Where to stay: the Singapore Airlines package deal looks all the more impressive when you see the rates charged by hotels.

The Raffles Hotel (00 65 337 1886) is a must if cost is not a consideration. Room prices start at pounds 296 per night. A cheaper alternative is the Imperial Singapore (00 65 737 1666) where rates start at pounds 80. A definite plus is that it is within walking distance of the Chettiar Temple.

More information: Singapore Tourism Board, 1st floor, Carrington House, 126-130 Regent Street, London W1R 5FE (0171-437 0033).