The temple resounds with the festive beat of drummers and prayer chants for Thaipusam –the annual religious Hindu festival of mammoth proportions that will take place at Batu Caves, 13km (8mi) north of the capital.
Although this year’s main ceremony day is February 3rd, in conjunction with the full moon of 10th month of the Tamil Hindu calendar, the celebrating for many begins at Sri Mahamariamman. It is early evening on February 1st and outside the temple is the five-ton silver chariot that will carry the Hindu deities to Batu Caves in an all-night procession. Men straddle the sizable chariot adding the final touches of fresh flower garlands the thickness of a young girl’s waist.
A local fellow leans toward us, “Up until a dozen years ago the wheels of the chariot were metal and it was pulled to Batu Caves by oxen.” The chariot now sports treaded tires; a bright red Toyota hauler is attached to its front end.
Our Thaipusam Hindu Fesival Photos
The block-long crowd buzzes with excitement, voices are raised in prayer. Free pre-packaged meals, water and juices are being handed out from a stash piled high on a lengthy table and as the delicious scent of curried rice reaches us, I bemoan to Rick, “Shucks, it’s too bad we just ate.”
This ancient Hindu festival was introduced by the Tamils from Southern India, who were brought to Malaysia by the British during their 19th century colonization for positions in various industries; such rubber estates, brick works and administrators in government offices.
Thaipusam honours the Hindu deity Lord Murugan (a.k.a. Lord Subramanian), the son of god Shiva and goddess Parvati. According to Hindu mythology Parvati gave Murugan a vel (spear) to kill the demon Soorapadman.
It is a Hindu festival of prayer, penance and thanksgiving to Lord Murugan. It’s a time for fulfilling vows in return for his warding off life’s bad situations and disasters (for example: a father has a gravely ill son, and vows to pay homage to Murugan with his son’s return to good health). Some devotees fulfill these vows of thanksgiving by strange and unusual rituals performed at Batu Caves.
We walk back to the AnCasa Hotel to patiently wait until the time the chariot procession is to pass almost outside our door. At around 11p.m. we join the throngs on the streets. We feel the chariot is near as a few police cars part the sea of people, and men stand ready with long poles to lift the wires that cross the street to allow for the 6.5 m (21ft) chariot to pass under.
Along comes the procession of worshippers; chants erupt periodically, many wear the traditional Hindu festival colours of marigold yellow, others carry pots of milk as offerings …and then the chariot appears – so brilliantly lit and radiant it dulls every other source of light around it. It slowly passes within our reach! More worshippers follow; some will walk all night in the procession to the Caves.
The next morning, fortified by a substantial breakfast, it is off to Sentral Station where we purchase return tickets to Batu Caves on the Commuter Train. Why today? We are told by hotel staff that going the day prior to the main festival day “the grounds will be not so busy.” The train is not overly crowded, which we take as a good sign.
Arriving at Batu we are met with a carnival-like atmosphere; loud music blares along the rows of tents with vendors selling all manner of goods – clothing, purses, jewellery, dvds, furniture, Hindu deity statues and pictures, savory and sweet food stalls. And… that’s not the end of where ringgits (local currency) are welcome – further in is a huge covered market of similar items, and plenty of small restaurants heaped high with fast-food favourites for the masses. “Not too crowded?” I chuckle as we wedge our way along, “a prime example of everything being relative.”
We purchase our 5-ringgit tickets ($1.75Cdn) and move up the ramp past bronze horses, and a large Vishu statue rising up behind, recognizable by her blue colour (one of the trinity of Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – respectively the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.)
The cavernous interior is breathtaking – vividly coloured dioramas portraying the Ramayana epic celebrating Lord Rama are stunning under the warm glow of golden light. This great Hindu epic is about duties and relationships, and explores human values.
I am particularly taken in by a drowsy-looking giant with a mountain of black hair and a bulging stomach. Little people surround him with baskets of food, and one stands on his cheek poking him with a spear to rouse him. I take the opportunity to ask two local girls, “Who is this?” They take turns filling us in, “He is Kumbhakarna who when offered a gift by Lord Brahma for his good character, he asked for “Indrasana” (Indra’s seat) as ruler of the heavens. The threatened Indra twisted Kumbhakarna’s tongue and the word “nidrasana” came out instead, meaning “to sleep”. He then slept for six months and was awake and ate for six months in cycles, until once he was awoken early on the orders of his brother Ravana, who wanted him to join in a war. Kumbhrakarna’s dilemma was he thought the war was unjust, but chose to fight out of loyalty to his brother.
We next climb stairs to a naturally formed stalagmite, the Suyambu Lingan (self-formed lingam) a symbol of Shiva in the cave’s upper reaches, before retracing our steps past these fascinating epic characters.
From here we continue on to Batu Caves. A 42.7m (140ft) golden statue of Murugan glints under a halogen sun beside the 272 steps up to the temple cave. Well, ready or not – here we go! As we near the base of the steps we are directed to the left side. The centre lane is also filled with ascenders, and the right lane is for those descending. Monkeys swing in the jungle trees on the cliffs that side the steps, with some brave ones taking a swift leap across the rows of worshippers.
The sweltering heat pulsates in waves around us as we climb. We are awed by those making the climb further strained by their offertory burdens. Many carry “paal kudam” (offertory pots of milk) on their heads.
After entering the first section of the cave there is a brief descent onto a flat limestone area. Here we witness a whole other aspect of Thaipusam wherein devotees, as a sacrificial or penitential vow fulfilling offering, have metal hooks in their back from which flowers or fruit is hung – or in this case, small silver pots of milk.
On this level some devotees are having their hooks and skewers removed by swami (Hindu priests). We stand riveted as a swami first throws an ample amount of holy ash on the devotee’s skin which prevents bleeding. We learn that this dousing with holy ash is also done before the piercing earlier that day, after a ritualistic bath in the nearby Sungai Batu (Rocky River). The devotees’ spiritual preparation for Thaipusam has been ongoing for 30 to 40 days prior to the event with a regime of fasting, abstinence and prayer.
We move from this flat level to the second set of steps and make it to the upper cave in good form. The rock walls around this gigantic hollow still rise a great distance from where we stand before a patch of blue sky is visible. A huge metal container is where worshippers deposit their milk offerings, and where they go to a beautifully decorated central shrine for blessings.
Our view on the descent gives us a new perspective of the grounds, a sea of heads that ebb and flow in streams.
The next morning is “the” festival day – February 3rd. It behooves us to go back to Batu Caves to be a part. The train is already packed tight with standing bodies when it reaches KL Sentral, with more squishing in at each stop.
We spill out of the train and go straight to the Batu Cave area, well not exactly straight as the path we took yesterday is so plugged with people we find an alternate route, and still the crowd is so dense all one can do is shuffle along. The air is electric; the bombardment to each of our five senses reaches a crescendo. The music is ear-shattering, hawkers call out, scents of flower offerings compete with food aromas and garbage spills from overflowing bins, the collectors unable keep up.
Shaved heads is a part of Thaipusam rituals for some. We have an “ahha’ moment along this route when we come across a handy line of barbers wielding straight razors. I imagine the mounds of black locks being recycled into soft nest padding by the birds that are hanging around.
“Look to your right,” Rick shouts over the din, “now that’s a kavadi!” Our eyes glue to a man carrying a kavadi as wide as fanned out feathers of a peacock and as tall as a man standing on his shoulders!
The kavadis are considerably larger than yesterdays, with wooden or metal frames adorned with colourful sheets of paper, tinsel, pictures of deities, holy symbols, and flowers. It is said they can weigh up to 70kg (150lbs). Chains often extend from the hooks on their back to the kavadi that rests on their shoulders, the heavier ones having an added waist support.
We move to within a meter of seeing more of the piercings of the devotees; some with skewered cheeks, others with back piercings wherein the skin below each hook like a candle’s wax melted into a tear-drop shape, the hooks weighted down with flowers or fruit, such as oranges – my jaw drops seeing one devotee’s choice of fruit being melons!
Each devotee is surrounded by family and friends, and his/her way is led by a band of drummers.
The devotees look to be in a trance-like state, oblivious to pain and the weight of the kavadi as they dance and twirl while their entourage is on alert for a toppling kavadi or to administer dribbles of water to quench the devotee’s thirst. The emotional intensity of worshippers is in the stratosphere, energy waves are palpable in the blasting heat and we are swept up in the fervour.
Eventually these devotees reach the entrance to the cave steps, which is so back-logged with worshippers it will be an hour or more wait until they begin their arduous adrenaline charged climb. I am rar’in to wait and make the climb with them, but Rick’s logic prevails, so instead we brace ourselves and forge our way back to the commuter train’s fenced-off area for those leaving the grounds. When the attendant opens these gates, there is no turning back – the force of the crowd propels us forward like a cork flying out of a champagne bottle. The sheer volume of passengers on the train gives a new meaning to over-capacity, but we make it back without incident.
Every facet of this auspicious Hindu festival will forever swirl in our memories – from the lively atmosphere, to the passion and zeal of worshippers and their mystifying and enigmatic rituals, to the friendly accepting attitude for us visitors (locals often nudged us in front of them so we could better see the happenings) – an enriching and unforgettable experience.
In the next morning’s Malaysian newspaper, the New Straits Times, headlines read, “1.6 million Hindus and visitors celebrate Thaipusam at Batu Caves”….how fortunate to have witnessed this incredible event.
Getting to Batu Caves from Chinatown: We took the KTM Commuter Train from Kuala Lumpur Station that goes directly to Batu Caves. Buses also leave from Kuala Lumpur Station, and taxies are readily available.
Recommended KL Accommodation:
AnCasa Hotel & Spa – a few steps from Chinatown market and Pudu Sentral Bus Station (for Intercity and Southern destinations), and a short jaunt to the Kuala Lumpuer Metro Station. Close to Central Market, and a half-hour walk to Petronas Twin Towers and KLCC. Great service and amenities for a reasonable price.
Thaipusam is celebrated in countries where there is a significant number of Tamil citizens – as well in Southern India (where it originated) and Malaysia, it occurs in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Guadalupe, Reunion, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar.