hindu festival-6Have you ever had one those days? Where your plans change and you’re not really sure what’s going on but then serendipity takes over and you get caught up in amazing things?

Well that happened to me the other day in Colombo. I had heard that there was a big Hindu parade at Sri Subramaniya Kovil, the big temple on Slave Island. By the time I got there, after getting caught up in typical Colombo traffic whilst doing a few chores, I thought I may have been too late.

It was the middle of a very warm and humid day in Colombo – it is supposed to be the wet season, but the rains have not come, and the city is so heavy and still, waiting for a big storm to clear the air! I was beginning to wonder whether this was such a good idea – maybe I should just go somewhere with air conditioning?

hindu festival-5As I got closer to the temple I could see signs of an earlier parade – had I missed everything? But no, there were still people waiting expectantly on the corners, offerings for sale, and police monitoring the traffic. I walked up and down the street just to see what was going on, as kids played on the street in traditional outfits, and locals watched from their doorways.

It wasn’t long before the crowds began to get heavier, the police presence more pronounced, and there was a definite air of excitement. The women wore traditional saris with flowers in their hair, carrying bowls filled with offerings; the men wore orange sarongs; hindu festival-8and the children – some in traditional costume, others wet from the earlier parade – were chasing each other up and down the street.

I found a spot near a little local store. The man was preparing and selling coconuts – an integral part of the offerings – and everyone was coming to buy from him. His wife was setting up a big table with offerings at the front of the store, and an older man was preparing a pile of coconuts.

The crowds continued to build, the police stopped the traffic, one gentleman found me a peak spot for viewing and for shots, and although everyone was eager to be ready for the parade, they were also wanting to make sure I was OK! At that stage the only white woman around – but I felt very safe and very welcomed into this distinct little community within the bustling city of Colombo.

hindu festival-16And then the parade started! From asking around, and doing a little research, I found out this festival, which goes over several weeks, is dedicated to the Vel. The Vel is the sacred spear, and is considered a deity within Tamil Hinduism.

First came men carrying giant fabric Vels, followed by 3 elephants – one even dancing to the music! There were many adults and children in various costumes – peacocks, and hanuman the monkey god, and various dancers, accompanied by bands and musicians.

hindu festival-3And then came one of the most important aspects of this parade – the men and boys, often in a trance-like state, suspended by dozens and dozens of hooks. Some were sitting, some were lying, others were suspended, almost in a crucifix-like pose. As well as being suspended by these hooks through their skin, many also pierced their faces with miniature Vels. Some were offering blessings and carrying babies that the crowd were offering up.

This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this. And I watched in awe and amazement. Not something I would ever want to do myself! And it made me wonder about the dedication to their religion and their culture.hindu festival-10

There was a lull in the parade as some overhead banners were moved in preparation for the larger floats coming through. It was only then that I stopped and realised how hot I was! I must have looked a bit out of sorts too as several women that I had been chatting to earlier offered me a cold drink. But despite that momentary need for a break, I was still feeling such wonder about being involved! And thankful for the opportunity to see such an amazing event! Wow!

hindu festival-1Soon after, women came, carrying sacred fire. Some had shaved their heads as another sign of their dedication. And there were many men, waiting for the next float, all in their orange sarongs. And many with mobile phones! A real mixture of old and new working together.

The street soon filled with 100s and 100s of men and women and children. Took me a while to work out there were 2 thick ropes in the midst of the crowd that were being used to pull a large golden chariot with the priests. One rope was being towed by men, the other by women and boys. You could barely see the rope as there were so many people wanting to be involved and trying to help!hindu festival-7

At the front of this, a group of young men stopped at the large pile of coconuts that had been doused in water and yellow dye and then also set alight briefly. As an important part of the ceremony, before the priests came any further, they smashed all the coconuts on the ground – with such delight! And bits of coconut flying everywhere!

hindu festival-13And with a shout, everyone heaved, and the chariot made its final way to the temple. The crowds surged to the base of the chariot to have their offerings blessed by the priests. The air was palpable with expectation and excitement. Following the chariot was a group of women. I’m still not sure of the purpose, but many were prostrating themselves on the ground, and following the chariot, often on their knees, whilst other women were pouring water over them.hindu festival-14

I slowly made my way through the crowd to the temple entrance, and watched the confetti being thrown from the top of the temple over the priests and the offerings and the crowds as they slowly shuffled inside. Some of the young boys were still suspended outside waiting for the auspicious time for them to be taken inside.

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I decided not to try and enter the temple. And to leave the crowds for some much needed respite! But after an amazing couple of hours I was still abuzz! Whatever you think about religion or people’s beliefs, or what people do for their beliefs, for me it was such an honour to be involved and welcomed into this event.

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