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Pierced by faith

Friday, April 15, 2011
By Adnan Attarwala

UNBELIEVABLE... The are pictures of devotees who had their bodies pierced as a mark of their faith in  Goddess Mariamman.

It is faith that propels people to reach for things unattainable even if the odds are against them, and it is faith that keeps them sane in an insane world.

The followers of Tamilian goddess Mariamman in the city have a lot to offer to appease the deity if their wishes are fulfilled and if there’s hope that she will guide them away from the path of darkness.

During the three days of the Mariamman festival in the month of April, more than 25,000 devotees congregate at the Thattankuttai Mariamman temple in Sion-Koliwada’s Sardar Nagar to pray and to watch a number of passionate followers take part in a riveting ritual- Body Piercing, which is certainly not meant for the faint-hearted.

About 1,000 devotees- men, women, children- aged between  one and 40, gather every year to get their bodies pierced in order to pacify goddess Mariamman, who they feel is the most powerful form of the spiritual world. “People from other faiths also turn up to appease the goddess, who satisfies all their desires and wishes and protects them from all forms of diseases,” says 45-year-old Raja Punuswamy, who has been learning the art of body piercing since the last ten years. The art of piercing of the face and the torso as a ritual is executed by special artists who are called in from Tamil Nadu and it is performed across all the 20-25 Mariamman temples in the city, with a large ceremony held at the Thattankuttai temple by Tamilian Hindu devotees who regard Mariamman as a deity having power to eradicate life-threatening diseases like smallpox and chicken pox.

The ritual is being followed since past 52 years by the Tamilian devotees who take part in the ritual to perform penance and fulfil the vows made over the years.

According to Raja, people having domestic troubles, job insecurity, marriage problems, black magic, etc. visit the temple to pray for their troubles to end and once their wishes are fulfilled they get their backs, ears, tongues and cheeks pierced with arrows, steel rods, spikes, knives or hooks connected to strings that are attached into their flesh while they pull the Kavadi (ornate burden), which is mainly a basket full of coconuts and limes, their eyes streaming with tears, and their faces portraying agonizing pain. Amazingly, not a trickle of blood oozes from the skin of the devotees whose bodies are pierced  by the needles and that’s what startles most of the onlookers.“We apply a white colored powder called Murrugan in Tamil which is used as an anesthesia on the devotees before the piercing work is undertaken,” adds Raja.

The devotees whose faces are covered in turmeric, at times, even get more than 200 hooks and spikes pierced all over their torsos, waist and cheeks, in devotion to the goddess and go in a procession which  stops at all the Mariamman temples in the vicinity for three full hours accompanying the idol that is specially brought from Tamil Nadu. “People get whatever they ask for. The power of the goddess is such that she can even make the fire burn in water instead of oil. Though the piercing  leaves marks all across the body and face, there’s no pain and no infection. We perform this ritual in order to show her that we are satisfied,” continues Raja who charges Rs.101 for lending the spikes and hooks, and an additional Rs.101 for the service. “The devotees never negotiate the rates, they give it happily. People come here from all states, villages from across the country to take part in the procession. If their wishes are fulfilled they perform the body piercing ceremony for three years,” he adds. The devotees are offered food of rice, lime and curd after the ritual and since the goddess is said to be extremely fond of lime everything is associated with lime. In these three days, about 7,000 limes are used, which are later distributed among the devotees. 

On the last day of the festival, the devotees apply turmeric on their bodies and also bathe in turmeric water as a part of the tradition and culture. The devotees of Mariamman comprise of Tamilians from the lower strata of society and are mainly from the Devendra tribe. Mariamman is said to be a proto-Dravidian goddess, not part of mainstream Vaishnavism or Saivism.

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