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Extreme Rituals and Health: A Surprising Match

Connor Wood: It’s hard to imagine an activity less conducive to mind-body health than shoving metal spikes through your cheeks before walking up a steep mountain path in shoes made of nails. Yet during the kavadi attam ritual — part of the annual Thaipusam festival of Tamil Hinduism — innumerable people eagerly do exactly this (and worse) as they process up a hillside to the local temple of the god Murugan. Some worshipers drag massive chariots from hooks embedded in their backs. Many carry enormous, 100-pound altars. But these acts of grievous bodily self-harm don’t seem to impair the performers’ health. In fact, a recent paper shows that, by some measures, the kavadi ritual actual improves it. The paper in Current Anthropology, “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practice on Psychophysiological Well-Being,” reports an experimental anthropology study of impressive complexity. Working in the island nation of Mauritius, the paper’s authors, led by anthropologist and experimental methods expert Dimitri Xygalatas (whom readers of this blog have met before), tracked physiological measures of health in a sample of local men before, during, and after the kavadi ritual.

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