A dozen spiritual leaders sit in a neat row. Heads wrapped in green fabric, they chant in harmony; their palms drum faster on tambourines and the music grows more intense. I know what lies ahead and I’m worried.
I’m attending a lesser-known event that happens in the recesses of the Kataragama festival, a two-week long holy gathering in Sri Lanka that attracts 100,000 Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim pilgrims. Devotees, many of whom travel for weeks to get to this auspicious city, have come to worship and perform acts of self-mutilation.
Seated in a semi-circle among the crowd, I watch as a man with a long grey beard and a white sarong wrapped around his waist steps up. He starts dancing around, slowly working himself into a trance.
Next to a few sticks of burning incense, I see a set of tools, like something out of a medieval torturer’s handbook.
He reaches for them, preparing to do the unfathomable. I recoil as he takes a knife and hammers it into his own skull. To the worshippers, this is a chance to prove their complete devotion to God.
The drums beat faster. The man, unfazed by the knife poking out of his head, reaches for a second knife. He hammers the sharp end in with a small rock. The pain must be excruciating, but in this trance-like state of mind, he appears to feel nothing.
He dances around, with two knives sticking out of his head. I watch transfixed.
This is one of those random travel moments when I have to ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’”
It takes two people to pull the knives out of his head. Little droplets of blood splatter all over his white sarong as the music crescendos. This isn’t an illusion. This is the real deal.
A succession of people get up to perform a variety of gut-wrenching acts. One man’s cheek is pieced and nailed to a nearby palm tree; another man cuts his own tongue as if chopping up a piece of celery.
Then a young boy who looks about 13 is pulled from the crowd. He calmly offers his arm, which is pieced with a long metallic shard.
I’m not particularly religious, and I find it hard to understand why people would do these things to themselves. I learn there can be a variety of reasons for such acts — voluntary self-punishment, proclamation of faith and proof of invincibility among them.
It seems that around the world, across many major faiths and throughout history, self-mutilation for religious purposes is a recurring theme.
An eye-opening experience, for certain. For more articles, videos and travel tips visit juliadimon.com
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