Twentieth Century Kavadi

Dan sent over these amazing photos a couple of days ago so I asked him for more information on them. This is what he had to say..

“My grandparents lived around the far east during and after WWII and my father used to visit them. He took these in Malaysia in the 1950′s as a young boy, during the festival he had a very strange run in with a Sadhu who told him a one-legged god watched over him, it kind of weirded him out as his grandfather (who helped raise him) lost his leg in WWI. He’s very straight-laced these days and doesn’t have much time for the whole body modification thing, although as a young boy he was fascinated!

Recently I’ve found more photos of the festival, and my grandmother has informed me that she used to go to as many religious festivals as possible because she loved them, also, that she has loads more photos of Thaipusam, plus others in Thailand and Sri Lanka..”

His grandfather was right (well, as a young boy he was anyway), it is fascinating! Another photo after the break, and hopefully Dan will get busy scanning some more photos for me soon.. Hint hint.

BME Newsfeed for Feb 7, 2006

Please note that links may expire. IAM members, please help out by submitting stories!


Spirit+Flesh: The Energy Pull:
Part I

Special Announcements

Now up after several years of construction, Fakir is very proud of his brand new web site with lots more information and many color pictures of Fakir schools and Spirit+Flesh workshops. For Body Piercing, Branding and Rituals CLICK HERE.

For many years bodymod and piercing fans have asked for copies of this classic film first released in 1986. Now Dances Sacred & Profane is back in circulation as a fantastic DVD REDUX with bonus material. See Fakir and Jim Ward doing the Sun Dance and O-Kee-Pa suspension ritual in Wyoming. For more information, video clips and orders CLICK HERE.


Just off the editing machine, an official selection for screening at the TRIBECA Film Festival in NYC in April 2005, this new full length documentary walks a twisted path. Produced over the last two years by Committed Films LLC, this movie is destined for the mainstream. It’s a “must see” for BME fans. For more information, video clips and national showings CLICK HERE.

Fakir’s Spirit+Flesh group energy pull and ritual
in Minneapolis, June 2004.

So What’s an Energy Pull?

I first experienced the “energy pull” when I was only about twelve years old (way back in 1942). Being the weird kid that I was, I had already discovered I could pierce needles and pins through my body with impunity — that I could get into a head space where I was a mere witness to cold steel passing through my flesh. In this state of mind I was removed from physical sensation, what the rest of the world called “pain”. But after I had pierced myself, there was no further sensation. Only a static needle stuck through me. It did not hurt. I couldn’t feel it. It was just there.

So wanting to expand my emotional experience, I soon learned to tie a small string around the needle and pull on it. I could pull gently and gradually increase the tension. I was in control of how fast and how much sensation I was receiving. Soon I learned to tie the string to a hook in the wall and pull back against it. I loved doing this and it became a regular practice for me. Every time I did this, I experienced a sweet rush of energy. At this time in my early life, I didn’t analyze what I was doing or try to rationalize it. I just enjoyed it.

In my teens, I lived in libraries (there was no internet for another forty years) and I devoured books. I was very curious to know more about the practice of piercing and pulling. I didn’t take long before I found out that what I was experiencing in my secret basement hideaway was not unique. Piercing and pulling was, in fact, a very ancient and honored practice in several cultures. I learned that in Savite Hindu Culture, they had been doing this kind of body ritual for at least 3,000 years. For them it was a technique for trancing, going beyond the body, leaving the body and allowing the body to be temporarily possessed by higher spirits and archetypes (like Murugan, Lord of Piercing). It was not a display of strength or macho or stoicism or an entertainment. It was the seeking of “a state of grace”.

Even closer to home for me (because I grew up on Indian lands in South Dakota only a few miles from Indian ritual grounds) was the Native American pierce-and-pull ritual called the “Sun Dance”. I didn’t need to study books to learn more about that practice! I had some first hand access to the stories and tales of Native American elders in my own community. I listened to them in the flicker of kerosene lamps as they talked in hushed tones about the glories of the “old days” when Sun Dance was the way to the Great White Spirit. Of course when I was a boy, the ritual had long been made illegal for Native Americans and they could be put in prison if caught secretly doing a Sun Dance. My heart ached for them to be denied the practice of one of their most sacred rites! I guess so far we Modern Primitives are very lucky that what we do has not been made, in most cases, a prisionable offense!

“It’s not how hard you pull, but how long…”

That phrase was a mantra used by Ogallala Sioux medicine men when they were instructing young men before doing a Sun Dance. What most contemporary hook pullers do not seem to understand about this practice is the complex interaction between body and spirit. When one does an “energy pull”, one is manipulating and rearranging the connections between body and spirit. Sure there are physical and chemical changes like the release of the body’s natural opiates, the endorphins. But there is more to it than that. At first there is the sweet rush, euphoria. Some of you know how that feels. But if the pull is prolonged, in concert with strong shamanic intent, there can also be intense visions, healing, travels to unseen worlds, going to core and touching the void. A few of you may have even gotten there. It is not about “trucking” or “tugs of war”.

Since the revival of the Sun Dance in modern times (starting in the 1970s), many of the Native American elders who direct the energy pull called the Sun Dance have noticed and bitterly commented on the conflict they see in some young dancers between traditional Native and Western European values. Western culture, with its focus on competition and individuality, clashes with traditional values of surrender, patience, group energy and letting go of ego. In some recent Sun Dances, young dancers were seen to compete with each other about how hard they could pull, how fast they could break free, how quickly they could be done with the dance. In the old days, a Sun Dance was frequently arranged so whatever the dancer was tethered to could only bend and resist the pulling. Breaking free of the piercing(s) was made impossible. The length of time one could pull against piercings was the truest measure of worth and devotion — and a great way to reach unseen worlds.

Left: 1830’s George Catlin drawing: prolonged energy pull by Ogalala Sioux against a springy sapling. Right: Fakir does three-hour energy pull during 1982 Wyoming Sun Dance and O-Kee-Pa ceremonies seen in the Dances DVD.

Any meaningful energy pull is not about pain, macho, testosterone or stoicism. It is rather a way of slowly increasing and prolonging the tension until one enters an altered state. In traditional Native American Sun Dances, pulling on piercings was not minutes or even hours, but often days. I personally know several recent Sun Dance pledgers who were pierced and pulled for four days! In Penang Malaysia I saw devotees who pulled on their multiple back hooks from five in the morning till eight at night — 15 hours! In my own experience (see the Dances Sacred & Profane DVD) Jim Ward and I pulled for some three hours before opting to break free. As the Ogalala medicine man said, “It’s not how hard you pull, but how long”. That is what makes the difference between a momentary thrill and a truly memorable and life transforming experience.

Tamil Hindus do day-long energy pulls from multiple hooks. Photos taken by Fakir during the 1995 Thaipusam Festival in Penang, Malaysia.

Opening Fourth Chakras

This brings me to the chapter in my life that began about 1987. Until that time, it was inconceivable to me that anyone else, except Jim Ward, might want to try what I was doing. My first volunteer was my life partner, Cleo. She had lost many friends and lovers in the AIDS epidemic that had begun in the early 1980s. She was filled with grief and heart-centered pain. So at her request, I made a ritual out of piercing her upper chest and back — then attaching balls to tug and pull with every movement. She danced for hours up and down a dusty path on a hillside in Northern California. On each side of the path we had placed stakes with photos of sick fiends, dying friends and those who had passed beyond the veil. She cried. I cried. And we both felt a release of heart-centered pain and grief at the end of the afternoon. I called that ritual a “Ball Dance”. It was then I began to realize the therapeutic effect of tugging and pulling on piercings, especially in the fourth (heart) chakra.

Over the following years, we repeated our piercing rituals and introduced them to many others in the subculture. In 1990, a group of us “ball dancers” got ridiculed and laughed at during the first gathering of Black Leather Wings. Some of the Leather Daddies present dismissed our ritual as a silly and trivial event. A few years later, we met with greater acceptance in Dallas, Texas where Allen Falkner hosted a large “Ball Dance” event that even got mentioned in the newspapers.

During the 1990s, I started experimenting with hooks in the chest (fourth chakra) instead of lighter piercings with attached balls or limes. I found them far more effective in opening the fourth chakra and releasing “stuck” energy. So beginning in 1996, I introduced the “hook pull” to various groups of seekers in the subculture.

Group energy pulls during day-long BLW rituals in Northern California, 2003/2004

Over the next nine years, the practice of pulling on flesh hooks spread from my first groups of only five or six people to the large number of hook pullers you can now see in the photos posted on BME. However, there is a difference between the hook pullers you see in photos on my Spirit + Flesh web site, and I suspect, most of those in the BME photos. In our shamanically-directed hook pulls we are very conscious of chakras — those important energy centers related to the body that open, close, and change energy flow in both our psychic and physical world. Of all the chakras, the fourth one, the heart chakra, is the most screwed up in our culture. It is the gateway from lower consciousness (survival, self, base emotions) to higher consciousness (love, clear mental activity, inclusiveness, selflessness). If it is blocked and full of crap, we live in world of confusion and misery. We live primarily as victims and make bad decisions. Read some writings of Caroline Myss for more on this. Actually, I wish we could compel our U.S. politicians (especially you-know-who) to participate in a shamanic hook pull and then send them to Caroline Myss.

With this insight, and what I feel was a strong nudge from my Patron Saint Lord Murugan (Hindu Lord of piercing and opening up), we have been doing public Sprit + Flesh Workshops & Rituals for about five years now — with repeat rituals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Phoenix and Minneapolis. My partner and I consider these workshops and rituals a humane and needed service more than a vocation. Obviously, we still focus on opening the fourth chakra, and sometimes chakras above number four. But I don’t see much point in doing knee or elbow pulls because there are no chakras there to open, close or manipulate.

Trance states and the opening of heart chakras was the intent and purpose of group energy pulls in this 2004 Minneapolis Spirit+Flesh ritual. See my web site at for participant feedback.

Cleo, My Partner in Spirit + Flesh Rituals Says:

I have been doing this ritual many times now. Every time it has been a different journey. The whole exploration for me is about altered states, a heightened state, energy, fire (yes it can be really hot), and visions. Most especially if I am pulling alone against a stationary object with my eyes closed. Any awareness of others or spectators quickly disappears. It is a personal dance of ecstatic fire, bright or soft. I went several times to a place that is not a place. Beautiful!”

“My last hook pull ritual was like wringing my heart from its grief. During the second stage it was a very sexy, a big energy exchange with my puller/lover. The third phase was fun and releasing as I pulled in a big circle with other dancers. You connect intimately with friends, lovers and even strangers pulling on your cords, tuning in to each other, experiencing group energy in a ceremonial tribal ring. At the end I was laughing and very high in this pool of energy and fantastic live drumming.

In the second part of SPIRIT+FLESH: THE ENERGY PULL, I would like to take you on a guided tour of some of the more memorable experiences we’ve have had, even in our next ritual which is only one week away in San Francisco. I’ll include some more photos and also feedback comments from energy pull participants. And if hook pulls must be entertainment, at least they can be “art” as my friends Vaughn and Joey Wyman of Body Manipulations did a few years ago. We’ll get into that and more in my next column.

Yours for safe and enlightened journeys,

Fakir Musafar
fakir at bodyplay dot com

Fakir Musafar is the undisputed father of the Modern Primitives movement and through his work over the past 50 years with PFIQ, Gauntlet, Body Play, and more, he has been one of the key figures in bringing body modification out of the closet in an enlightened and aware fashion.

For much more information on Fakir and the subjects discussed in this column, be sure to check out his website at While you’re there you should consider whipping out your PayPal account and getting yourself a signed copy of his amazing book, SPIRIT AND FLESH (now).

Copyright © 2005 LLC Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published February 25th, 2005 by LLC from Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Suspensions & Tensions: Yesterday – Fakir Rants & Raves

Suspensions & Tensions:

"Your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being."

In 1943, a young teenage boy in South Dakota was bored to tears in the stifling, restricted and limited environment around him. He haunted libraries hoping to find a glimmer of something different, exciting, vital and alive in the world beyond. In the school library, in a musty alcove he hit pay dirt — a complete collection of old National Geographic magazines dating from 1905! Here were pictures of people who looked different, lived differently and had done radically different things with their bodies. This was exciting, WOW!

Early photos of Savite Hindu devotees during Chidi Mari Festival in South India (Madras, 1920’s). After hooks are pierced in the back, the devotee climbs a high tower where he (or she) is lifted into free air by a horizontal pole and slowly rotated.

One photo in particular attracted his attention. In a 1920’s issue he saw photos of young men and women in India with hooks pierced through their flesh hanging fully suspended by their flesh from a rotating cross arm high in the air. Why did they do this, he wondered? How could they do this? What did this feel like? What did it do to you? Several years later, the boy found some descriptions and drawings of Native Americans who also pierced their flesh and either pulled for hours against deep piercings or hung suspended by them.

Discovery of these Native American rituals rang many bells for the boy since many of these rituals had taken place in the same physical space in South Dakota he now occupied, and only about fifty years prior. Following a psychic trail on his bicycle, he found several places where Lakota, Arikira and Sissiton peoples had pierced their flesh and pulled against it. The vibes were still there beneath the rustle of cottonwood leaves on the trees from which they pulled and hung.

The feeling left in these places was infectious. The boy was intoxicated by it. He had to try this himself. In fact, he felt like he had done this before. That boy was me. He has since tried these body rituals many times. Now some fifty years later, in 2003, he finds himself in a strange new world — one where many others have also felt the urge to pierce their flesh and either pull against it or be suspended by it. However, some of these explorers seem to think they’ve just invented the wheel and want some kind of patent on it to claim ownership. So now we’ve got “Superman” and “Coma” suspensions and other new names that just didn’t exist in the world of the people who originated these rituals. But that is ok as long as some credit and honor is paid to the people who came before and showed the way — as long as the inner “magic” and “sacred space” belonging to these rituals is not forgotten or ignored.


The practice of piercing the flesh then pulling or hanging by pierced body parts is not a new custom. It has been a part of Hindu Culture in Southern India (Tamil Nadu) for thousands of years, nearly as long among the Sufi of the Middle East, and for hundreds of years as a part of religious ceremonies of Native Americans. It is, until recently, an alien and forbidden custom in mainstream Western Cultures. What useful purpose could this custom have? Why would anybody deliberately choose to “mutilate” their flesh and “suffer” thus? A huge conflict exists between Western Culture and those where such piercing rites are honored and encouraged.

The core of this conflict centers around different cultural beliefs about the body. Who does your body belong to? A distant God who has strict rules about what you can do with it? Or to a Priest or other intermediary of this real or imaginary divinity? Does your body belong to a father or mother? Or to a husband or spouse? Or to the state or a social order or tribe? Does anyone besides you have the right to decide what you can or cannot do with your body? Or does it simply belong to you the one who lives inside?

In those cultures where piercing ceremonies have developed, the attitude is pretty much universal: your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being. In Western Cultures of the late 20th Century, some of these alien beliefs have replaced old Judeo-Christian ones. Since the 1970’s the widespread practice, acceptance and popularity of body modification definitely says, “My body belongs to me!” However, like many customs and practices that originated in other cultures and were transplanted here, only part of the messsage seems to have been transmitted. For example, the art of tattooing was brought to Europe from the South Pacific by sailors and early explorers. In Somoa and the Marquesas, the custom of tattooing was a very sacred and special rite: “the making of a magic mark”. It was an initiation, a rite of passage, and meant to transform forever the one who bore it. The early sailors brought back the technique to make the mark — but failed to bring back the magic. So soon European tattooing became a mere novelty: marks that don’t wash off, a status symbol of sailors and outcasts. The meaningful and magical geometric designs of the originators were replaced with the only kind of graphic Europeans understood: crude representational pictures or words. The magic and purpose of the originators had been lost in translation.

In most cases, I feel the same thing has happened to the suspensions and related piercing experiences a lot of people are doing today. They are often being done for sheer novelty, attention, and ego satisfaction. I feel very strongly that if one borrows a custom from another culture, it is your obligation to respect and understand, as best possible, the significance and mystery of the practice. Otherwise, it can easily fall into darkness or misuse and undesirable consequences or spiritual degradation can result.

However, at the same time, I feel everybody has a right to do what they will with their body even if it is for sheer exhibitionism. But they should be aware they are missing the full potential and magical significance of the act.


The oldest recorded history of piercing the body and pulling on or hanging by the piercings goes back perhaps five thousand years to the earliest cultures of India. In this great period of human development in the East, the concepts of Hinduism including the various yogic disciplines, understanding of energy centers (chakras), tantra and the Kama Sutra were born. The body/spirit connection was especially explored, and the ability to attain different states of consciousness was both sought after and revered. The idea of “using the body to transcend body” played an important role in religious and everyday life.

Two major Hindu Festivals are especially focused on body piercing rituals: Thaipusam in January/February and Chidi Mari in May/June. Both festivals are celebrated primarily by Savite Hindus (devotees of Lord Siva, Muruga, Murugan, Subramanya, the Great Mother Mari and Kali). Other Hindus, like the followers of Vishnu or Krishna, do not usually practice body rituals or employ body piercing in their religious practice. In fact, they often hold these rites in contempt. The Savites are mostly the dark-skinned Tamil people of Southern India (Tamil Nadu) and direct descendents of the original indigenous peoples of India. Their Tamil language used in the chants of their “Pujas” (worship) is the spoken equivalent of the ancient written language of Sanskrit. Historically, the Tamil peoples have been persecuted for hundreds of years. First by the light-skinned Northern Indians, descendents of Aryan invaders, then by the British colonialists who hauled them off as virtual slaves to work on tea plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and other parts of the British Empire. Wherever they’ve been taken by force, the Tamil people have been remarkably successful in preserving their culture and spiritual practices. Something similar is now happening with the culture of Tibet.

Above, L-R: Thaipusam hook-swinger in Ceyon in the 1930’s (Is this Superman?), recent Hindu rituals in Melacca (West Malaysia), and Kavarti at the Sivananda Ashram in Val Morin (a man suspends from a rig on a pickup truck). Below: Group rituals at the Sivananda Ashram.

As public festivals, both the Thaipusam and Chidi Mari have been effectively outlawed in India and Sri Lanka. Too barbaric. But in other parts of Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Thailand, these “torture festivals” still flourish. The Chidi Mari Festival is devoted to worship of the “Great Mother” (Mari) and other female deities like Kali. Devotees are often pierced by two hooks in the back, suspended on the end of a long pole and rotated high in the air. Others are pierced with multiple hooks and suspended horizontally for long periods of time (two to six hours). All this done to attain a “State of Grace” (ecstatic trance) in which the Great Mother possesses their bodies and bestows enlightenment and blessings on them and their families.

Thaipusam is a piercing festival to Lord Siva and especially the Hindu dieties who are “Stars in His Crown”: Muruga, Murugan, Subramanya, Skanda, Ganapati. Devotees vow to bear a gift to the deity (archtype) under physical hardship. This is considered the purest of gifts — the offering of one’s own body pierced with spears, skewers or hooks as it delivers the gift. This is “Worship Through the Body” and such a gift is especially accepted and blessed by such deities (archetypes) as Murugan, Lord of Piercing and patron Saint of the Tamils. When I witnessed the Thaipusam in Penang Malaysia in 1995, I felt the reality of the sacrificial energy released. It was overpowering, intoxicating, sweet, and very similar to the energy that I have experienced at many of the body suspension and hook pulling rituals I have facilitated or witnessed in recent years.

This same energy has historically been a part of Sufi body piercing rituals dating back hundreds of years. In case you don’t know, Sufi is a fusion of ancient Hebrew, Hindu, and Islamic beliefs and practices with emphasis on individual “gnosis”, that is “direct knowing” by means of altered states. Sufi sects that still practice piercing rituals, dervish dancing, and other trance rites are not accepted by mainstream Islam and have been forced underground except in the United States and a few other Western cultures. I even know of one of them in Marin County, California! One of my ardent pro body piercers learned Arabic and was attached to that group. My namesake, the original Fakir Musafar, was a 12th Century Sufi mystic from Meshed, Persia (Iran) who for sixteen years had six daggers embedded in his chest and back plus six horseshoes suspended from twelve permanent piercings in his shoulders and arms. Musafar’s message was much the same as mine: one can access the unseen worlds and find the source of being through the body. Legend has it Musafar was ridiculed for his bizarre practices and that he died of a broken heart because his message went unheard. In many ways, I feel the hand of Musafar and the energy of Murugan in what I have been doing for some fifty years. I also feel the Spirit of the Modern Primitive is an extension of that same ancient and timeless energy.



Catlin’s 1800’s painting of O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Cermony of the Mandan. This art is scanned directly from the original litho page in his 1867 book published by Trubner & Co., London. A precious find, this original leather bound copy belongs to Fakir!

Strange as it may seem, the practice of piercing the body and ritually pulling or suspending it to achieve some kind of union with divine powers developed quite independently on the North American continent. The exact time frame is unknown since there are no written records left by these tribal peoples — only verbal records and stories told to Europeans in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The most significant chronicler of these customs was George Catlin, an Englishman who lived among the Mandan people in the 1830’s and both wrote and painted descriptions of their body rituals. The Mandan, who were not hunters and gatherers, lived in villages and cities along the Missouri River in what is now South and North Dakota. The primary Mandan suspension ritual was called the O-Kee-Pa. It was both a rite of passage for all young men and also a repeated practice for a vision-seeking shaman. Mandan legend says the practice was given to them by a white man who came down from a mountain in ancient times.

After many days of fasting and extreme ordeals, Mandan young men who were about to become adults and enter adult life were pierced twice in the chest and twice in the back. Under the guidance of an older man who had taken this journey before, often many times (called a Ka-See-Ka meaning guide), they were suspended by either set of piercings from the roof of a lodge. In extreme pain, followed by trance, the young men were hung up for about twenty minutes to seek communion with “The Great White Spirit”. Legend has it that initiates traveled out of their bodies in this state and were guided through unseen worlds by their Ka-See-Ka who knew the way. The O-Kee-Pa journey was like a canoe trip on a tricky river: the initiate submitted and just rode in the canoe while the Ka-See-Ka steered it to appropriate vistas and to avoid rocks. Through the years, neighboring tribes, especially the Arikara and Minnetaree, were exposed to the Mandan ritual and developed their own piercing rites, often more severe.

Various Sioux (generic French word used for all tribal peoples living in this area) tribes like the Lakota, Ogalala, Teton and Yellow Hand also adopted or developed shamanic piercing rites — chief of which is called the Sun Dance in which pledgers are pierced once or twice in the chest, fastened to a tree or pole and vow to pull against the piercings until the flesh breaks. Again, the object is to enter an extraordinary state and meet an animal ally or the “Great White Spirit” — either as communion, healing or to obtain special knowledge. The most serious initiates and experienced dancers gained great respect and awe for how long they could pull against the piercings without breaking free. Sometimes this would be several days.

Wonderfully accurate movie reenactments of the O-Kee-Pa and Sun Dance can be seen in the Richard Harris films “Man Called Horse” and “Return of the Man Called Horse”. A documentary film of a real modern day Sun Dance and O-Kee-Pa style suspension can be seen in the film “Dances Sacred & Profane” shot in Wyoming with Jim Ward and Fakir as initiates. When this film was released on videotape it was called “Bizarre Rituals”. Watch my web site for a new tape to be released soon with the last thirty minutes of the “Dances” film plus a short profile of Fakir produced by French filmmakers and Canal+ for European distribution.

Yours for safe and enlightened body rites,

Fakir Musafar
fakir at bodyplay dot com

In my next column, SUPENSIONS & TENSIONS: TODAY, I will bring these practices to contemporary times with accounts of my own experiences and the experiences of others. I also wish to alert those who currently do piercing rituals with large hooks of a new and recent danger: MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylcoccus Aureus), a staph infection that is resistant to all current forms of antibiotics. It is real. It is here and I recently had to deal with a case that required two open-heart surgeries! It is easily transmitted by mere physical contact. It is then called CA (community acquire) MRSA. More on this new danger in my next column.

Fakir Musafar is the undisputed father of the Modern Primitives movement and through his work over the past 50 years with PFIQ, Gauntlet, Body Play, and more, he has been one of the key figures in bringing body modification out of the closet in an enlightened and aware fashion.

For much more information on Fakir and the subjects discussed in this column, be sure to check out his website at While you’re there you should consider whipping out your PayPal account and getting yourself a signed copy of his amazing book, SPIRIT AND FLESH (now).

Copyright © 2003 LLC Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published November 15th, 2003 by LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.

Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness? (Part II) – Fakir Rants & Raves

Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness?
Part II: The New Culture Matures

Today is August 10. My seventy-third birthday! It’s a good day to reflect, remember, and take stock of what has happened to me and the world around me. During the 1960s, since I’d “gone public”, I found new opportunities for personal exploration. Instead of isolation, there were now kindred spirits — others to give me encouragement and sanction for a whole new round of “body play” adventures. I asked sympathetic friends, like Davy Jones, my newly found tattoo artist, to put me in a “Kavadi” frame like that of the Savite Hindus. I was pierced by ninety four-foot long steel rods in my chest and back. I danced for many hours with this fifty-pound load. I went into a state of ecstasy and drifted out of my body. It was sweet. It was bliss. I got to know what the Tamil Hindus had experienced as long as a thousand years ago. I repeated “Taking Kavadi” many times after that, and eventually I was asked by other Modern Primitives to put them in it as well. I did so and also acted as a shaman who could safely guide them through the hazards of the “unseen worlds” to which they went.


In another body ritual, I invited trusted friends to pierce my chest with two large hooks and suspend me by these piercings in the style of the Ogalala Sioux Sun Dance and Mandan O-Kee-Pa ceremonies. That experience proved to be truly transformative; life-altering. After I swung free it took only about ten seconds and I was lifted out of my body where I drifted up to a White Light that radiated incredible love and understanding. The Light said, “Hello, I am you and you are me. And I am as close to God as you will ever be!”

In a timeless space, I had a long telepathic conversation with the White Light. I got answers to many questions. I was never the same after that remarkable trip. Years later I discovered that many others had had a similar life-altering transformation during what is called “the near death experience”. But mine was voluntary and sought after as part of my “body play”.

I repeated the hanging several times after the first one in 1976. Each one contained its own lessons to learn and special places to visit. My fifth hanging was beautifully filmed in Wyoming for a documentary by Mark and Dan Jury, released in 1985 as Dances Sacred & Profane. A video with segments of this hanging and a Sun Dance will soon be available on my web site. I have not done this kind of suspension in recent years — one does not have to repeat a body ritual again and again if the first one resulted in a truly transformative experience. The job is done!

By 1990, the Modern Primitive Movement, with its intricate web of body expression and exploration, had come to bloom. Body piercing was now a mainstream business in large cities — mostly as a result of the diligence of a handful of people in the original 1970s T&P group mentioned in my last column. In 1990 and 1991 I worked as a commercial piercer in one of the largest of these studios in San Francisco. Since I also did, and had done for some years, private ritualized piercing I couldn’t help but introduce this element into what was developing into a commercialized personal service industry. I was curious: why did these hundreds of mostly young people flocking to our studio want piercings? I knew from years of research many of the reasons why people in other cultures did it, but how about these contemporary Modern Primitives?

In the so called “primitive” tribal societies I had studied and visited, about a dozen recurring reasons kept appearing for the practice of body piercing, marking, and modification rites:

  1. Rite-of-passage marking movement from one phase of life to another
  2. Creation of life-long peer bonding
  3. Sign of respect or honor for elders and ancestors
  4. Symbol of status, belonging, bravery, or courage
  5. Initiation into greater mysteries and the unseen worlds
  6. Protection from evil spirits and energies
  7. Opening for beneficial spirits and energies
  8. Rebalancing of body or spiritual energies
  9. Healing of diseased body, self, or others
  10. Healing of wounded psyche, self, or others
  11. Healing of tribal disorder and chaos
  12. Tribal and community connection to greater forces

Since I was now doing ten to twenty piercings a day, I had plenty of opportunity to ask reasons of contemporary piercees. In the privacy of the piercing booths we used in a commercial studio, I would encourage ritual and ask, “You don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to, but if you don’t mind, could you tell me why you’re getting your nipples pierced today?” Or, “Have you been thinking about doing this for very long? Does it have any special meaning for you?”

I expected answers like “I’m getting this because I think it’s cool” or “I want this piercing ’cause all my friends have it”.

To my surprise, most piercing clients in San Francisco gave me more meaningful answers. The reasons were not very different, in most cases, from those I had found in other cultures where body piercing was sanctioned and a part of cultural tradition… But a few of the reasons were radically skewed from those of other cultures; reasons never or seldom heard in tribal cultures. One that came up often in San Francisco, especially among young women, was a sad commentary on the abusiveness and disregard for others’ Sacred Space in our society. “I’m getting my genitals pierced today to reclaim them as my own. I’ve been used and abused. My body was taken without my consent by another. Now, by this ritual of piercing, I claim my body back. I heal my wounds.

Some reasons were more obvious and traditional, such as the identification and status marking of certain subgroups like bikers, or the Club Fuck girls of Los Angeles who all wore small colored rings in their nasal septum. But the most common reason given for a body piercing usually involved a rite-of-passage or memorial to some one near and dear to the piercee.

In 1990, while I was piercing commercially, I met Dr. Armando Favazza, M.D., a renowned psychiatric expert on self-mutilation. We were both appearing on a television talk show on self-mutilation and body modification, mostly that of young women who slashed themselves with razor blades. In addition to Dr. Favazza and myself, the program also featured Raelyn Gallina who is renowned for and openly does cuttings on others (primarily women) in socialized rituals. Raelyn and I packed the studio audience with highly modified people, all of whom were either heavily pierced, tattooed, or cut with intricate patterns. They were all very articulate and positive about their experiences. For his side of what became a television debate, Dr. Favazza brought in a young woman “cutter” from Los Angeles who had a long history of isolated cutting and psychiatric treatment. She had just been released from a hospital. I felt sorry for Dr. Favazza — he didn’t have much of a chance to present his side of the story in this setting. We overpowered many of the negatives with our enthusiasm.

After the program, the young cutter from Los Angeles connected with other women in the audience whose urge to express deep feelings by body ritual had been more social and sanctioned than hers. In listening to their conversations, I had the feeling that if this woman had been in San Francisco and had connected sooner with a supportive peer group like this one, her shame and negative experiences as an isolated cutter might have taken a different turn… that she might have avoided the psychiatric ward. Dr. Favazza also noticed this interaction of his patient with the other women cutters and it seemed to register deep in his consciousness. I gave the psychiatrist a tour of the widespread display and acceptance of body modification in San Francisco. In the long run, that kind of exposure added a whole new dimension to his work. He eventually revised his psychiatric text book Bodies Under Siege and a new edition was called Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry (John Hopkins University Press, Second Edition, 1996).

By 1991, the Modern Primitive Movement was receiving widespread public notice, which in itself was a type of sanction. Rock stars and clothing models began to appear in mass media with body piercings and tattoos. Maverick clothing and personal styles became fashionable. I gave countless television interviews and wrote extensively for the alternative press about these changes. Hundreds of young people responded to the message. They wanted more: more information, more opportunity, and more guidance in body arts and ancient rituals, and more instruction in safe and social ways to express themselves through the body. To provide a reliable channel of information, I started a magazine called Body Play & Modern Primitives Quarterly. This magazine lasted for nine years and served its purpose well through 1999. Then other forums, along with BME, came into being to fill the gap.

For the general public who wanted guided group exploration of body rituals, I started a series of workshops on “Ecstatic Shamanism” in the mid-nineties; these workshops have been given in major cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, and Washington DC. They are becoming ever more popular and are continuing on in the new century (see my web site for up coming shamanic events). And, close to my heart, in 1990 I started Fakir Intensives to teach the art, skills, safe medical practice, and magic of body piercing and branding. I started this school on my kitchen table with two students. Now it has expanded to monthly classes with ten students and seven very dedicated and skilled instructors. To date this educational enterprise has trained over 1,400 body piercers and branders. Fakir Intensives are registered with the State of California as a Career Vocational Training Institution and instructors are certified for the subjects they teach. This represents a huge advance in social sanction for our body modification passions!

All of these recent activities have given permission and sanction to thousands of young people eager to modify their own and other people’s bodies. Some are sincere, grounded, thoughtful, and stable, open to advice and counsel. Others are so overwhelmed with their passion, so quick to act, that I have adopted a practice of intervening and stalling any rash, hasty, or risky bodymod actions whenever possible. I advise them to study the traditions and reasons behind the practices they are going to do and to consider the risks and possible dangers: physical, mental, spiritual, and psychic. If, for example, a young man wants to do a real Sun Dance, I would encourage him to learn all about the Native American tradition from which it came. I would advise him to find a trustworthy medicine man or shaman and only do the ritual if that mentor felt he was properly prepared and ready.

I’ve had a number or people ask me to help them take the Spear Kavadi of the Hindus. One woman, a Christian, asked at least a dozen times. I made her wait two years until I felt her motives were clear and she was appreciative of the Hindu tradition from which it came. Then I asked her to prepare herself so that finally, on a sunny summer day in Northern California, I could put her into the Kavadi cage for half a day. She had a marvelous transformative experience during the ritual. A few years later, I also hung this same women horizontally by twenty-two piercings in a thousand year old Redwood tree where she drifted into the unseen world and visited her own private hell and heaven. Again she had a deep transformative experience that a few years later prepared her to pass from this physical world altogether!

Others who also facilitate modern day body modifications have adopted a similar practice. Raelyn Gallina, for example, was recently asked by a protégé body piercer trained in my courses to make a series of slashes across his face. The requested modification was radical; the decision to do it was somewhat impulsive. When he went to Raelyn to get this cutting, she asked him if he had given it much thought; seriously considered the consequences. She made three lines with a permanent red marker where he wanted the slashes on his face. She told him to wear the marks for seven days. If he still wanted the cutting at the end of the waiting period, she would do it. This is the type of approach serious, responsible body modifiers should be taking. But not everyone involved in the modern body modification trend are this conscientious. Some see the trend as a way to commercialize and exploit this “urge” that runs so deep.

* * *

Why do we do it? Why do people through all ages and in many cultures seek expression of life through the body, through sensation and modifications? I’ve felt the “urge” myself and have come to terms with it. I’ve investigated this phenomena — it runs very deep and is a significant part of human development. The more I look, the more I am convinced that the “urge” wells up from profound universal archetypes that may even be encoded in our genes. Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel and explore the universality of this “urge”. As a young man, I was emotionally moved by the body worship of the Savite Tamil Hindus in such cultural rites as the Thaipusam Festival. As a teenager, I had seen photos of them in old National Geographic magazines — on the streets of South India with a hundred limes suspended from body piercings, in arched frameworks supported by long iron spikes embedded in the chest and back, suspended by large hooks in the back or chest, with long spikes pierced through their tongues and cheeks. The glazed look in the eyes and their seeming indifference to pain said something.

I vowed to witness this event some day, to soak in and understand first-hand what was happening inside these unique people that I had only observed externally in pictures and movies. So after waiting fifty years, in 1995 I finally had my chance to attend a Thaipusam Festival in Penang, Malaysia (see Body Play Magazine, Issue #11). I was not disappointed. A million people gathered — over two hundred thousand in Penang, a half million in Kuala Lumpur, and another quarter million in Singapore on the auspicious day. These were not tourists but devotees with their priests, family, and friends assembled for massive and openly sanctioned public worship through the body. In Penang, the procession streets were purified by smashing over two million coconuts whose milk is believed to clear the way for the passing of the image of Lord Muruga (also know to the Tamils as Murugan, Subramanya, Velan, Kumara, and many other names, each indicating an aspect of an unseen deity).

The atmosphere on the morning of the body piercing and procession ritual was heady and intoxicating. As I watched group after group of Tamil Hindus get pierced to cries of
“Vel!”“Vel!”, and let themselves enter into deep trance states and possession, I began to feel the utter reality of the deities they were invoking. Murugan was there. Lord Siva was there. Goddess Kali Ma was there… all welling up from somewhere deep inside the devotees. I had felt this before at my own rituals and the ones I had conducted for others in California, but never of this magnitude. What I felt in Penang that day was definitely not “sickness” but rather a “State of Grace”. Way Big Grace! I continue my own Body Play, and in it, find my own States of Grace. I encourage all others who feel the urge to seek their own as well.


Fakir Musafar
fakir at bodyplay dot com

Fakir Musafar is the undisputed father of the Modern Primitives movement and through his work over the past 50 years with PFIQ, Gauntlet, Body Play, and more, he has been one of the key figures in bringing body modification out of the closet in an enlightened and aware fashion.

For much more information on Fakir and the subjects discussed in this column, be sure to check out his website at While you’re there you should consider whipping out your PayPal account and getting yourself a signed copy of his amazing book, SPIRIT AND FLESH (now).

Copyright © 2003 LLC Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published August 14th, 2003 by LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.

Beauty: Eye of the Beholder? – Fakir Rants & Raves

Beauty: Eye of the Beholder?

“The body belongs to the spirit that lives inside. And to no one else.”


Welcome to my new column. It’s a genuine pleasure to be a contributor to BME online news for “we the alternative people”. After fifty years of research, my own personal explorations and the mentoring of hundreds of others, I feel obligated to share with all those special persons “who hear the sound of a different drummer.” So every month now, look for this column where I will bring you a mix of news, views and hopefully information that will empower and help you further your own passions. I welcome challenges and questions to answer in the column. So feel free to write me about whatever moves you. As an “old dad” in the body modification movement, I hope to offer this column as a clearing house for new ideas/adventures and hopefully a place to moderate some of the conflicting views that often plague us.

The subject of this first column is inspired by my recent experience with a new television show now in production. The show is a series being called Eye of the Beholder in which the host, Serena Yang, is traveling all over the world to film and interview people who are different — from the moko mark revival devotees of New Zealand to gothic corset wearers in San Francisco to body piercing and tattoo fans in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The series, which will air on Discovery Channel in 2004, has an interesting and intelligent slant. Its theme is exploration of the question: What is Beauty?

Serena interviewed me in depth in May 2003. She will continue interviewing folks of our ilk at the coming APP conference in Las Vegas. She is a sharp and perceptive interviewer who honed her skills interviewing such celebrities as B.B King, Carlos Santana, Ravi Shankar, Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Sean Penn among others. She has a passion to ask why one does what they do. She has said of herself, “the value of listening to these people is a continuing education for me … the reward is coming away from each person with a wider vision of the times we live in, the issues we need to explore and the choices we can make.”

So with that introduction, I spoke at length to Serena about Modern Primitives, body modification, body rituals, spirituality and similar topics during my May piercing school. She asked good questions and many of them started my mental processes whirling. I began to ask myself questions like: “what really differentiates the visual impact of one body alteration from another”, or “is there a universal, cross-cultural way to gauge the significance of a beauty ideal”? After the interview, Serena came very close to surrendering to our persistent Intensive instructors about having her nipples pierced. We’ll get her next time!

Intensives instructor Tod Almighty meets Serena Yang of Discovery Channel

Tod tries to convince Serena to get her nipples pierced.

For my next shoot with Discovery Channel, at Dark Garden Corsets, Serena did allow herself to get involved in a bodymod. Fakir laced her rapidly into a tiny corset with a twenty-inch waist. She reeled about, spun on high heels, panted and was totally delighted with the sensation and look. She emailed me today:

"Good to see you again last week and experience your corsets first hand! I am a corset convert now, thanks to you! I've always liked them from a fashion standpoint, but now I can appreciate them on all their myriad levels."

The Price of Beauty

Getting down to brass tacks (which are sometimes lovely to sit on), many of us are obsessed with being different, looking different, expressing our differences. Yes? Why are we doing this? What is the payoff? These are the kinds of questions Serena asked me in our interviews. They made me think. What is the Essence of Beauty anyway? What’s the payoff? What are we, or anyone in any other culture, after by making a body alteration?

First it seems obvious we wish to satisfy our own vision of ourselves, how we look and feel to ourselves. And second, and probably more important, we wish to look “beautiful” to others. Of course we must realize some “others” may have different ideas of what is beautiful and claim ownership of what is not rightfully theirs. For example, take the proposed legislative ban on tongue splitting in Illinois. And we know that most of the “others” in our culture are programmed and conditioned to certain fixed notions that may conflict with our own. And that they often try to take our bodies from us — act like they have the right to claim possession of what is ours for “God” and his emissaries, or parents and spouses, or governmental and correctional agencies, or educational and medical institutions. But we know better. The body belongs to the spirit that lives inside. And to no one else.

So in context of any immediate or intimate group that accepts the truth that the body belongs to the one living inside it, the payoff often seems to be to “Stand Out in the Crowd”, to be unique, to be special, to be noticed in that group. This part of the “beauty ideal” seems to be universal in all cultures. In many tribal cultures I have studied, certain members of the tribe either volunteered or were selected by elders to be modified. Example: the young males of New Guinea known as Ibitoe whose septums were pierced for large spikes and whose waists were systematically reduced to wasp-like proportions with tight belts. They were special in their communities, honored, revered. Same goes for women in Africa whose lips were pierced and enlarged to hold huge plates. The larger the plate, the more beautiful. And the Padung women of Burma/Thailand with their giraffe necks stretched to ten inches or more.

So now in the mixed contemporary culture in which we live, there are conflicting standards about beauty and the way it is achieved. On the one hand there is a passion to conform to certain popular beauty ideals by “quick fixes”: injections of botox or collagen, plastic surgery like liposuction or breast implants that make a rapid physical alteration. Or the taking of pills to do this or that with the body without external effort. On the other hand, a different kind of logic rules in those who modify their body in more difficult, more time consuming and more deliberate ways via tattooing, body building, piercing enlargement, corseting and similar practices. I guess that’s most of us. Yes?

So on a universal scale, what are some of the standards by which mankind has cross-culturally gauged the relative value of beauty? How do we rate beauty’s significance on a scale of 1 to 10? After collecting information on hundreds of examples of body mods in different cultures, including our own subculture, this is what I discovered:

  • In general, the more effort, time, discipline, persistence, patience and physical hardship that was endured to make the alteration, the more precious it is rated, the more it is honored, the more beautiful it is.
  • The more the alteration sets one apart from those surrounding him or her,
    even if others also have the alteration, the higher it is rated in the group which generally prizes rarity.
  • Beauty is perceived more as difference than conformity; when too many members of a group have the same alteration, it drops in value.
  • To illustrate the reality of these principles in contemporary circumstances, here are a few examples. A woman with a sixteen-inch corseted waist is more apt to “stand out” in a crowd than a woman with silicon breast implants (unless they are as big as watermelons). Point is you can’t have that small a waist by taking a pill or a quick slice of the knife. It takes time. Or you have the buff male body builder on the beach. He is always going to draw more admiration than the guy with a fake tan, snappy clothes and plastic surgery. And in our own world of body mods, we often get more and more radical piercings and tattoos so we stand out from others — keep pressing limits to achieve or maintain beauty status within our group.
  • How would you rate these body modifiers on a universal Scale of 1 to 10?




    Value Added

    So far in this column, I have been examining only one aspect of what’s involved with alterations of the body (what I call “Body Play”): a specific aspect labeled BEAUTY. But “beauty” only deals with the aesthetic side of life, the part of us that dwells in the five-sense world, only relevant with other people. How about the deeper side of us that operates in the “invisible world”? How about the inner emotions, feelings, spirit and energy that animates the body? Or going one step further, how about unseen forces and beings that may dwell outside the body and influence or be influenced by what is happening within body? What if body rituals dealing with the unseen world somehow play a bigger role in our life journey than those so obvious to the five senses? Body rituals like cutting, ball dances, suspensions or hook pulling? Or what if our energy added to such a “gift” delivered under hardship to an unseen deity or archetype adds value to the gift in such a way that we receive a very special blessing in return? That’s what they practice in Hindu Culture in body rites and festivals like Thaipusam.

    The aspects of body alteration dealing with unseen forces and energies will be the subject of my next column. It will be called Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness. Again I will focus on the cultural conflicts we are all facing when we give in to our passions.

    Yours for more beauty in the world and less struggle,

    Fakir Musafar
    fakir at bodyplay dot com

    Fakir Musafar is the undisputed father of the Modern Primitives movement and through his work over the past 50 years with PFIQ, Gauntlet, Body Play, and more, he has been one of the key figures in bringing body modification out of the closet in an enlightened and aware fashion.

    For much more information on Fakir and the subjects discussed in this column, be sure to check out his website at While you’re there you should consider whipping out your PayPal account and getting yourself a signed copy of his amazing book, SPIRIT AND FLESH (now).

    Copyright © 2003 LLC Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published May 18th, 2003 by LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.