Datuk Chachar: Penetrating the Surface of a Subject

When my teenaged daughter asked me if I had any pictures of Hindu practices that she could take to her next yoga class, I was taken off-guard.  Though I have plenty of frames of yogis and aesthetes, naked sadhus and countless celebrations in honor of deities, the first Hindu tradition that came to mind is the Datuk Chachar in Malacca.  This particular celebration is about as far away from the soft flute playing, incense burning, tree-posing of my daughter’s class as you can get, definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach.

The festival is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, and though on the surface it’s a grueling, stomach-turning ordeal, it’s actually a raucous and joyous event.  I got to witness it at the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia.  Datuk Chachar is unlike the typical religious festival as its devotees give thanks to their gods for answered prayers by skewering their flesh with needles and fish hooks big enough to snag a shark, all done in a trance and supposedly without pain.

The festival was the perfect way for me to show the Chinese diaspora that was a key part of a story I was working on.  Instead of seeing Indian faces, as you’d expect at a Hindu celebration, most of the participants looked Chinese.  They are, in fact, so-called Straits Chinese, descended from Chinese settlers who sailed through the Straits of Malacca during the expeditions of the great Admiral Zheng He and landed in Malaysia.  Here, the Chinese culture melded with the local traditions, and many of the offspring of overseas Chinese grew to embrace Indian Hinduism, some with a fervor bordering on fanaticism.

Impossibly loud drumming signals the beginning of the ceremony. Smoky incense billows from inside the temple.  Men in trances stare bug-eyed off into the distance, as temple elders poke long needles through their flesh. There’s no blood, but the whole operation looks very painful.  It’s surely painful to watch.  Next comes the procession – a three-mile walk to a sister temple.  Some of the faithful pull chariots carrying images of gods, using ropes attached to their bodies by hooks imbedded in the angry red flesh of their chests or backs.  Hooks and ropes tether other marchers to handlers, who hold onto the celebrants as if they were dogs on a leash.  Still others stagger down the road with pierced cheeks, tongues and lips.

Happy I could accommodate my daughter’s request, I offered to present my Datuk Chachar photographs to her class. She politely declined (actually, her exact response was “Ewwww!”), then said she’d go with a shot that she found online — of Jersey Shore’s Snooki doing yoga.  Namaste.

©Michael Yamashita

Most of the festival devotees are Chinese, descended from settlers who arrived with Zheng He’s fleet. These Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) have adopted many of the local customs and religious practices.

©Michael Yamashita

In Malacca’s biggest Hindu festival of the year, Datak Chachar, celebrants give thanks to the gods for prayers answered by parading with spikes and hooks driven through their skin.

©Michael Yamashita

In the most extreme form of body piercing, a Malaccan kavadi bearer wears this cage of spikes and fishhooks as reparation for answered prayers.

©Michael Yamashita

At the peak of the Datak Chachar festival, the procession of penitents, skin punctured with fishhooks, passes through Malacca.

©Michael Yamashita

Malacca, Malaysia was China’s first large-scale overseas settlement and now home of the Peranakan, or Straits-born Chinese.

©Michael Yamashita

The wounds inflicted by the spikes and hooks do not bleed, and participants claim not to feel pain while in their trancelike state.

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About the author

Mike Yamashita has combined his dual passions of photography and travel for over 25 years as a shooter for The National Geographic. Specializing in Asia, he has covered Vietnam and the Mekong River, Marco Polo's journey to China, the Great Wall, the DMZ between North and South Korea, as well as almost every aspect of Japanese culture from samurai to fish markets.

Among many of his published books, Yamashita's best-selling Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey sold over 200,000 copies worldwide in its initial printing and was re-released by Rizzoli in the fall of 2004. Marco Polo is also the subject of his award-winning National Geographic Channel documentary, Marco Polo: The China Mystery Revealed, in which Yamashita retraces the 13th-century Venetian's epic excursion to China.

A frequent lecturer and teacher at workshops around the world, Yamashita has received numerous industry awards, including those from the National Press Photographers Association's Pictures of the Year, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian-American Journalists Association. Major exhibits of his work have opened throughout Asia, in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, as well as in Rome, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. His images of Korea's DMZ were featured in an exhibit at the Visa Pour L'Images photojournalism festival at Perpignan, France.

When not traveling, Michael Yamashita lives with his family in rural NJ, where he maintains a studio and an extensive stock library, and is an active volunteer fireman.