Hinduism is a minority religion in Malaysia. An estimated 9% of the total population of Malaysia are ethnic Indians, of whom almost 89% are practicing Hinduism.
Over a million Hindus gather every year at various temples nationwide to celebrate Thaipusam. The exact date of this important Hindu event is based on the full moon day in the month of Thai (January/February) in the Hindu calendar. Thaipusam is a celebration dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan (youngest son of Shiva and his wife Parvati). The celebrations take place on a grand scale at the Batu Caves (Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple) just outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Thousands of devotees and tourists head to the caves every year, dodging the inquisitive monkeys that live in the surrounding jungle and defying Kuala Lumpur’s punishing humidity to ascend the 272 stone steps to the temple’s entrance.
However, it was the opportunity to see the scenes of intense sacrifice and feats of endurance that are only on display during Thaipusam in Batu Caves.
Barefoot with Kavadi
The 15-kilometre walk from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the city centre to the caves is no ordinary journey: devotees prepare for Thaipusam days in advance, by fasting and carrying a kavadi – an ornate structure balanced on their shoulders and colourfully decorated with images of deities. The sacrifices made as part of Thaipusam are a very important event within the practices of Hinduism in Malaysia.
Some will carry pal kodum (milk pots) on their heads as they walk, while others display their dedication by piercing their skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers or hanging rows of hooks on their backs.
While it all sounds squeamish, thankfully the scenes at the cave were so magical that I enjoyed every moment of my Thaipusam experience.
It is, however, a long night and the congested steps leading to the caves can feel more than a little claustrophobic at times. If you want to see this spiritual spectacle for yourself, follow my guide to joining the crowds while still maintaining a few creature comforts along the way.
The Prep: Day Before Thaipusam
Celebrations at Batu Caves are an amazing experience for tourists. The starting point for the procession is Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and it’s worth heading here the day before to see what’s going on. Situated on Jalan Tun HS Lee in Chinatown, it’s close enough to explore the attractive blue and white art deco Central Market and the stalls that line nearby Petaling Street – but maybe leave the haggling for another day.
The night before Thaipusam Hindus gather at the Sri Mahamariaman Temple along Jalan Tun HS Lee (Chinatown/Petaling Street area). From there they will leave around midnight on a 15 kilometer (approximately 8 hour) walk towards the Batu Caves where they will arrive the next morning. The long trip culminates in the flight of 272 steps to the cave entrance. It is said that well over a million people visit the Batu Caves during Thaipusam, so be prepared for a very crowded, hectic and sometimes even claustrophobic experience. At some points it can be so crowded that people are pushing the masses to get forward. It is best to stay away from these crowds. The best place to get some great shots of the crowds is by walking towards the elevated highway (which is packed with parked cars anyways).
Day of the Festival
When you arrive at the Batu Caves on the day of Thaipusam don’t be surprised (or rather shocked) to see many people in trance. Some are being carried by their siblings, wives, husbands or other relatives. Many men (and also the occasional woman) have themselves shaved at one of the many barbers. Because of this you see many devotees walking around with a bald head. One of the aspects that make Thaipusam so interesting is the way that devotees pay penance to Lord Murugan. Some pierce their skin, tongue or cheeks with Vel skewers. We even saw a man hanging on multiple hooks while being pushed forward. Some had many small hooks in their backs with small decorations. A few times we noticed that some where blessed by others; which led to great excitement with the devotee expressed by dancing uncontrollably and waving arms wildly.
Devotees, tourists and locals all are allowed to go up the stairs to the actual caves. There the Hindus will pray and also say thanks at numerous altars. The area around the Batu Caves is filled with small stalls where food, snacks, drinks and also many religious items are sold. There is also a small children’s amusement park. Walking through the small stalls can be a bit crowded; same goes for the stairs up to the caves. Foreigners can get real close to the action as there is a special ‘press’ area where actual press (and tourists) is allowed to take close-up photographs and videos of the devotees that are waiting to start their climb up the stairs that lead into the Batu Caves. We were also allowed up the special ‘press platform’ that towered over all the people right where the stairs towards the temple start.