Festivals of Penance


In San Fernando, 40 miles from Manila, the Capital of the Philippines, a controversial religious ritual takes place at Easter. The people of San Fernando re-enact the seven last days of Jesus Christ, culminating in crucifixion at high noon on good Friday.

Young men are actually nailed to a cross, enduring the pain and suffering as an act of penance or as a sacrifice for a sick relative. The atmosphere in the town is intense, and year after year the same men return to take part in this bizarre, but unforgettable, ritual.

Information and Contacts

▪ Crucifixion: photographs of the festival.



In the mountain town of Gilgit in northern Pakistan, the minority Shia sect celebrates Ashura each year to commemorate the death of Hussain, the last descendant of Mohammed. Hussein’s tragic death marked the end of the divine blood line, and the festival begins 40 days of mourning.

The Shias gather in the town centre, chanting passionately and beating their chests. The climactic ritual is for the men to flagellate themselves with sharpened blades, slashing themselves repeatedly as the blood pours down their back.



Thaipusam is celebrated throughout Malaysia and Singapore, but the biggest and most intense celebrations take place in Kuala Lumpur usually around Febuary or March each year.

The three day festival begins at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in the Chinatown district. A procession sets out from here to the Batu Caves, about 13 kilometres north of the city. Thaipusam is celebrated in the Hindu month of Thai, usually around the last week of January or the first week of February.

Some one million visitors attend the Batu Caves in Selangor over the three days of Thaipusam, and about 50,000 Hindu devotees make the procession, escorting a statue of Lord Maruga (also known as Subramaniam) from the Sri Maha Mariamman temple to the Caves. They work themselves up into a spiritual frenzy, indulge in masochistic acts of self mutilation and body piecing and drag heavy weights and beautifully decorated structures called kavadis with various parts of their bodies. They have undergone a month-long ritual cleansing process to prepare themselves for these feats of endurance, during which they deny themselves alcohol, tobacco and sex and meditate regularly.

Devotees claim that the mutilations they inflict upon themselves cause them no pain and leave no scars. Devotees can choose to honour the Lord Maruga for any number of reasons: it might be to give thanks for sparing them from illness or for the birth of a child. Hindus believe that if they fail to give thanks for favours granted then bad luck will befall them.
Similar Events

Smaller Thaipusam celebrations take place in the Malaysian cities of Ipoh (Siva Subramaniam Temple), Johor Bahru (Sri Thandayuthabani Temple), Penang (Nattukottai Chettiar Temple) and in Singapore (Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple).