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Vel Kavadi Photograph Album

An inventory of the item at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Title: Vel Kavadi Photograph Album
Inclusive Dates: circa 1920
Quantity: 1 volume (SC)
Abstract: Private photograph album documenting devotees performing the Vel Kavadi and related rituals and mortification of the flesh.
Language: English
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

[Description taken from dealer catalog.] The Vel Kavadi ritual is one of many well known Indian yogic, penance, and endurance practices done for the purpose of ritual purification; these were later embraced by Stelarc and the Anglo-American "Modern Primitives" movement, and influenced especially Fakir Musafar, London's Mr. Sebastian, and Charles Gatewood.

Kavadi is Tamil for "yoke," and refers to the the large metal frame that is often decorated with flowers and peacock feathers that devotees construct as an act of sacred veneration to carry on their shoulders. Vel is derived from "lance" and refers to the long spikes (as many as 100) that are attached to the kavadi and that pierce the devotee's flesh, creating a cage-like structure that is then borne and walked with. Penitents are instructed to take kavadi in dreams, and vows are often made to pay dues for sacred favors or for pure love and devotion. Preparation for carrying the kavadi is the culmination of a period of ritual purification and sexual abstinence. Devotees wear yellow, live in the temple, and spend their days constructing the kavadi, with little sleep and vegetarian food only once a day (Ward, p. 319).

Variations of this ritual for the deity Murugan are performed across the non-western Hindu world. The origins of the ritual and its paraphernalia lie in a number of stories from the Hindu epics: "According to Hindu mythology, the tribute to Murugan is connected with his assistance to the devas (celestial beings) and martial victory over the forces of evil. Placed on a golden chariot adorned with precious gems, with his vel (lance) and peacock, Murugan is taken to represent the struggle of good over evil and to symbolize virtue, bravery, youth, power, courage, vitality, and valor" (Ward, pp. 317-318). The kavadi may also be symbolic of the hills that the giant Idumban once slung over his shoulder and carried away on poles (Ward, p. 318).

Ward, Colleen. "Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Psycho-Anthropological Analysis of Ritual Trance, Ceremonial Possession and Self- Mortification Practices," Ethos, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1984).

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

[Description taken from dealer catalog.] The Vel Kavadi Photograph Album is a collection of fifty images from the first third of the twentieth century depicting a ritual of great significance to Western body modification culture. Photographs in the album record the entire ritual and related events, including the carrying of kavadi on a processional route in the environs of a temple. The photographs show ash-smeared devotees in and out of states of ecstatic and ritual trance, a large variety of piercings (cheek, back, lip) with weights and bells attached, as well as kavadi on their shoulders being attended to by experts and priests. The expert attendants are crucial for certain piercings and the ash is smeared on the body to staunch blood flow. Though unquestionably of anthropological significance, the album is perhaps even more noteworthy as a work of original vernacular photography. Images are skillfully shot, perspectives creatively framed, and subjects carefully considered. The unknown photographer creates a book of exceptionally intimate portraiture as well as an early and rare photographic study of this important religious ritual.

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Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

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Subject Headings


Body piercing -- India.
Body piercing -- Pictorial works.
Body piercing -- Religious aspects.
Body piercing -- Southeast Asia.
Purity, ritual -- Hinduism.
Rites and ceremonies -- India.
Rites and ceremonies -- Southeast Asia.


India -- Religious life and customs.

Genres and Forms


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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Vel Kavadi Photograph Album,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase, 2014.

Finding Aid Information

Created by: MRC
Date: 14 Jul 2014
Revision history:

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SC 711 Photo album circa 1920

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