I have attended many religious celebrations in my time, some that also involved piercing or similar physical acts of devotion. But I have always avoided Thaipusam like the plague. I figured it would be something like a circus with the devotees placed at the center of a freakshow.
And in many ways my fears were confirmed.
Rarely have I photographed at an event at which common courtesy was so absent. I was pushed and shoved. People who really should have known better (I'm looking at you Mr. 2 D800's) didn't think twice about stepping in front of my carefully framed shot, or on my foot, or even -- much worse -- stepping on the offering a devotee had laid on the ground to get that all important shot.
Yes, it really was the freakshow I had tried so long to avoid.
At one point I really contemplated pulling the plug and getting out of there. But I had committed to a fellow photographer to attend, and I felt an obligation to stick it out. So I did.
In other words, to treat people with dignity.
And I found that as the devotees finished their piercing rituals many of the gawkers moved on and the 'real' Thaipusam began, as participants - families, individuals, friends - made the walk from the stadium to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Waterfall Temple).
Will I attend next year? Maybe. My uncertainty is due partly to the fact that I don't know if work will take me elsewhere during the festival. But also, I feel that I need to get beyond the obvious, to go deeper and show all that Thaipusam is about.
I need a personal connection to the event -- ideally I would follow a devotee through the whole process from fasting and cleansing in preparation to the day's events and beyond.