The Tamil Chariot Festival last Sunday took us to South India and Sri Lanka for two hours. It was at the Sri Ayyappan Temple on Middlefield Road in Scarborough. The temple’s president Thiru Sivasamy said he welcomed outsiders. “We would like them to get to know our Hindu culture,” he said.
The festival here centres on the worship of the deity Ayyappan. Followers gave offerings to him. They bowed and prayed in front of his statues. Drummers and musicians played continuously. They showered him with rose petals and put his statues on three chariots. These they pulled around the outside of the temple.
Most dramatic were their acts of self-mortification for one or two reasons. They could be expressing regret to the god for sinning or they could be petitioning for favours. The extreme was the piercing of two men with hooks in their backs and legs and suspending them from decorated truck cranes. Other men made the cranes bounce while the two raised and lowered their arms like wings “in praise,” said the president. It must have been painful, but Sivasamy explained that the penitents and petitioners had all prepared their bodies by fasting and praying for 11 to 25 days before. “They are not drugged.”
Many of the other men had skewers through their cheeks to help keep them focused on the deity by making it impossible to talk. They were also punishing themselves by having wires or metal hooks inserted into their backs. These were attached to ropes which helpers pulled intermittently for the two hours.
Some might have bargained with Ayyappan, explained Sivasamy; for example, a father might promise to do this act of worship if his sick child is healed. Many people carried coconuts which they later smashed to get wishes fulfilled. Coconuts are symbols of prosperity.
The worshippers also danced to music and drums while carrying heavy yokes or kaavadi on their shoulders, with or without ropes attached to their backs. “The music praises the deity and relieves the pain,” said Sivasamy.
One man rolled flat on the ground following a chariot. Like many of the other men, he was bare-chested and wearing only a sarong. His helper threw tiny stones ahead of him, making the ordeal more painful. It must have made him dizzy too.
The women pulled the chariots for the same reasons. Only women carried burning lanterns, or pots of milk and honey to feed the god. Women are never pierced. Some followed the chariots, progressing each time they got down on their knees with their heads to the ground.
Emmanuel Gallant’s video is at: http://youtu.be/uX0y1aMgLIE.
Another such festival will take place this weekend at the Sri Varasiththi Vinaayagar Hindu Temple, 3025 Kennedy Road #10, in Scarborough. If you go there, please let us know what you think. Ruth