“Devotees at Kerala’s Aaryyankavu Bhagwathi Temple have devised a new way of performing the banned ancient Thookkam, or body-piercing ritual. In the original Thookam ritual, the back of the person willing to perform the ritual is pierced with sharp hooks and lifted up to a height of over 30 feet on a scaffold, before the bleeding victim is brought down and hooks taken out. However, the new method doesn’t require the devotee to be hung or lifted. ‘After a court put a ban on the ancient ritual of multiple body-piercing and hanging from rope, now only single piercing is done in the body and the person just stands still and does not hang. The devotees also fast for 41 days’ said Shiv Raman, a temple committee member. In 2004 – following a widespread protest by social activists and even Hindu priests – the practice was banned by a court. The legend behind the ritual goes back to the ancient days. Legend has it that even after slaying the demon Darika, the Goddess Kali remained bloodthirsty. Hindu god Lord Vishnu then sent his mount, the giant bird Garuda, to Kali. Garuda gave the goddess some drops of blood, which pacified her thirst. The ritual is performed based on this belief” (News Track India, March 31, 2010).
Last year I was the resident psychologist on a 12-episode series for the Discovery Channel called Forbidden (which is now airing in the UK). Each episode examined four cases of extreme human behaviour from around the world (in fact, when I started filming, the series was called Extreme Worlds and only changed names at the eleventh hour). One of the stories we covered featured people that hung and suspended themselves from hooks that were pierced into their flesh. Although some people appear to carry out the practice as part of sexually sadomasochistic practices, the opening story highlights that some people carry out such ritualistic behaviour for religious and/or spiritual reasons.
In Forbidden, the story concentrated on what were called the ‘Corn Tryb Rituals’ (CTRs). These originated in St. Louis (Missouri, USA) when a small group of friends formed a group that would meet to engage in bloodletting rituals and ‘flesh pulls’. These practices then evolved into regular ritualised ‘suspensions’ that strove to connect to ancient ways. As one CTR participant interviewed said: “We give back to the earth and universe parts of us. Usually blood, sometimes flesh…We burn sage and sing songs to the gods. We send out positive energies”.
In researching CTRs, the documentary makers found out that there were strong Mayan threads running through the group in St. Louis, the foremost theme being the myth of creation, i.e., the Mayans first created man out of mud, then wood, and then finally corn (and where the CTR name derives). All the St. Louis CTR members had a scarification or tattoo of day glyph, a symbol of the Mayan calendar. (A glyph is an element of writing – an individual mark on a written medium – that contributes to the meaning of what is written).
The CTR’s founder is Ricardo H. (a professional piercer by trade) who formed the group with 12 ‘core’ members comprising seven men and five women (although there are more individuals on the periphery). The members claimed that the female members had a higher pain threshold (although there was little evidence to back up this claim). The documentary’s production notes reported that:
“[The St. Louis CTR group] is one of few crews is the US that does suspension the tribal and ceremonial way. Other groups are more hardcore and punk, kind of like ‘F the World’, Ricardo says. CTR members say for them it’s about loving the world and forging a connection to Mother Earth. There are a few people in the Tryb that practice Druidism and several Wiccans, even a Catholic guy who believes that doing suspensions (especially things like the crucifixion suspensions) help him become closer to God. Then there are the atheists who just like to suspend because it gives them a high that tops any drug they’ve ever touched. Even for those who have never done drugs, it’s still a high for them. Being safe is their No. 1 priority. It took nearly three years before they had all the necessary equipment, especially considering mountain equipment is very expensive. In general, most suspension groups work with the same materials that are used by climbers and professional riggers. If people think they sloppily insert hooks and try dangerous procedures on a whim, they would be wrong. The procedures behind the suspensions are specific and everything is well planned out. The hooks are specialized for suspension and can cost from $15 to $75 each. And they are sanitized in a similar way as for piercing tools: cold sanitation scrub, soak, scrub, autoclave”.
During CTRs, the hooks are usually placed into parts of the body where the skin is soft and stretches easily (so called ‘sweet spots’). This includes hook placements in the upper to middle back, chest, hips, calves, forearms, and knees. Even for those that have participated in many suspensions, the initial piercing hurts (“the hooks sting”) like any other piercing but the pain lasts longer because the needles and hooks are longer and bigger than those involved in typical ‘everyday’ body piercings. As one of the female group members said:
“Getting pierced sucks…But once you’re off the ground it’s just a big endorphin rush like how marathoners get runner’s high. Once the pulling starts though it’s not so bad, just pressure. I can deal with pressure pain better than stingy pain. When it gets too intense, I just zone out, but I try not to because I like to be able to selectively ‘zone,’ which is something I’m working on with scarification”.
Each time the group carries out a ritual suspension there are between five and eight people present all with a specific job they have to do to make the process as safe as possible for the person undergoing the actual suspension. According to the show’s production notes, the different roles include:
- The ‘rigger’ that installs and monitors all the suspension equipment such as cable and ropes.
- The piercer (in charge of ‘hook placement’) who also monitors the person for flesh ripping.
- The ‘bio’ (short for ‘biohazard’) who keeps an eye on the hooks throughout the suspension, and removes bubbles and/or patches up any holes that form. They also make sure that not a single drop of blood hits the ground.
- The ‘rope director’ that hoists the suspended person up and controls the slackness of the rope. There are also one or two others that control the rope line going up and down (a ‘puller’ and/or ‘holder’).
- The ‘anchor points’ that oversee where the cables and chains are stationed and anchored and oversee the pulley system.
The ceremonial aspect is fundamental to the whole process with spiritual and fasting components. One interviewee reported:
“When you are suspended you are in a state of meditation. You feel connected to everything, all the energy of nature, my Tryb, the love that’s there. We often fast, offer offerings, play drums and other things. It’s pretty amazing”.
At the time of filming, the CTR members were about to have their ‘End of the World’ party (December 21). The date is significant as this is when the ancient Mayans marked the end of an era that would reset the date to zero and signal the end of humanity. The CTR members don’t see this as the literal ‘end of time’ but as the end of the cycle, with the re-alignment of planets and the beginning of a new, exciting cycle. I’m sure most of you reading this can’t imagine being subjected to such a extreme bodily experience (I certainly can’t) but the CTR members stress that the experience for them is not abnormal. Ultimately, they claim the ritual is a way of coping and understanding pain. They also stress that no-one in the groups is a masochist. They do it because it’s a challenge and a way to test the boundaries of their bodies.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
News Track India (2010). Body-piercing ritual at Kochi Temple. March 31. Located at: http://newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/156577
Hook Life (2011). Corn Tryb Ritual. Suspension.org, September 28. Located at: http://www.suspension.org/hooklife/corn-tryb-ritual/