When my teenaged daughter asked me if I had any pictures of Hindu practices that she could take to her next yoga class, I was taken off-guard. Though I have plenty of frames of yogis and aesthetes, naked sadhus and countless celebrations in honor of deities, the first Hindu tradition that came to mind is the Datuk Chachar in Malacca. This particular celebration is about as far away from the soft flute playing, incense burning, tree-posing of my daughter’s class as you can get, definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach.
The festival is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, and though on the surface it’s a grueling, stomach-turning ordeal, it’s actually a raucous and joyous event. I got to witness it at the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia. Datuk Chachar is unlike the typical religious festival as its devotees give thanks to their gods for answered prayers by skewering their flesh with needles and fish hooks big enough to snag a shark, all done in a trance and supposedly without pain.
The festival was the perfect way for me to show the Chinese diaspora that was a key part of a story I was working on. Instead of seeing Indian faces, as you’d expect at a Hindu celebration, most of the participants looked Chinese. They are, in fact, so-called Straits Chinese, descended from Chinese settlers who sailed through the Straits of Malacca during the expeditions of the great Admiral Zheng He and landed in Malaysia. Here, the Chinese culture melded with the local traditions, and many of the offspring of overseas Chinese grew to embrace Indian Hinduism, some with a fervor bordering on fanaticism.
Impossibly loud drumming signals the beginning of the ceremony. Smoky incense billows from inside the temple. Men in trances stare bug-eyed off into the distance, as temple elders poke long needles through their flesh. There’s no blood, but the whole operation looks very painful. It’s surely painful to watch. Next comes the procession – a three-mile walk to a sister temple. Some of the faithful pull chariots carrying images of gods, using ropes attached to their bodies by hooks imbedded in the angry red flesh of their chests or backs. Hooks and ropes tether other marchers to handlers, who hold onto the celebrants as if they were dogs on a leash. Still others stagger down the road with pierced cheeks, tongues and lips.
Happy I could accommodate my daughter’s request, I offered to present my Datuk Chachar photographs to her class. She politely declined (actually, her exact response was “Ewwww!”), then said she’d go with a shot that she found online — of Jersey Shore’s Snooki doing yoga. Namaste.