It is hard to describe range of emotions that race through me (Jonathan) as I navigate the crowds of an event like Thaipusam in Penang, Malaysia. The opportunity to witness and photograph one of the world's most fascinating religious festivals makes me almost giddy with excitement. The anthropologist in me emerges.
At the same time I feel a keen sense of heaviness and despair. Claustrophobia is a constant companion as I am pressed by the crowd and overwhelmed by the sights, smells, and sounds around me. Groups of people line the road competing for the loudest music, best food, and coolest drink to entice the revelers to grace their temporary shelters.
Then there is the heart break. It happens every time; often more than once. This time, my heart breaks and I fight the tears as I make eye contact with a boy who looks like he is barely 12. He is exhausted. His eyes are glazed and distant. A relative massages his legs as he rests from his long journey. He has walked and danced 4 miles barefoot already with his kavadi (burden).
Some burdens are small, like a jar of milk, some are large like the personal float he carries, and some are jarringly painful like the men pulling friends or carts through the streets with ropes tied to hooks in their backs. Many make the journey with skewers piercing their bodies or small jars of milk hanging from hooks pierced in their skin. It has to be painful. There has to be a sacrifice made to gain the favor of the gods or to pay a debt to the gods. So on this day commemorating the defeat of an evil demon by the god Murugan, hundreds of Tamil Indians carry their burdens on a pilgrimage down the streets of Penang and other cities in Asia.
In a cultural worldview consumed by a cause and effect/reap what you sow way of thinking, this makes perfect sense. You must give to receive. But why pain? Why would a god demand suffering to grant good? This is a theme that runs through most human interactions with the supernatural. Pain and death are the currency of spiritual enterprise.
In some ways, this is not too far from my own interaction with the supernatural. I owed a debt that could be paid only by my own death. My only hope to regain my favorable position with the supernatural was to pay for it with my own blood. And even that would not have been enough because it was more than just a debt; it was treason.
But in my case, someone offered to take my place, and pay my debt with His own life. So now I am wondering what would have happened if I had stopped taking pictures, took off my shoes, and asked the boy if he would let me take his burden and carry it the rest of the way for him?