For those not in the know, this is a country of diverse peoples and cultures. The Malaysian calendar is peppered with observances that pertain to several faiths and beliefs, with the community often banding together to join in the festivities of any given one in the spirit of harmony. An example of such occasions is Thaipusam, which falls on 8 February this year.
Celebrated by the Hindus, this is an elaborate festival that see landmark temples around the nation thronged by devotees – the most famous of which is the temple at Batu Caves. Featured in countless photos, this site is recognisable by a large golden statue of Lord Murugan at the foot of a hill, and the hundreds of colourful steps that rise up to the mouth of a large cave behind it.
Inside this cavern in the limestone hill is the sacred temple, and when Thaipusam is nigh, it will draw an increasing amount of devotees right up to the day itself. The resulting atmosphere and scenes are what define this festival and make it stand out from many others.
Thaipusam commemorates the day the Hindu goddess Parvati bestows a lance, or vel, upon her son to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam. To mark the event, Hindus prepare themselves by fasting, praying and performing absolutions in the days leading up to the festival.
Each year, over a million devotees take part in a procession from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of the city to Batu Caves some 15km away, an eight-hour journey that culminates in a flight of 272 steps to the temple cave. It is truly a sight to behold, as devotees haul large decorated carriers called kavadi up the steps as offerings to Lord Murugan to seek forgiveness for past deeds or thank him for wishes granted.
Though Thaipusam at its simplest may entail carrying a pot of milk atop one’s head up the steps as an offering, or shaving one’s head bald for a vow, mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin or tongue with vel skewers is also common. No pain is felt nor blood shed, and bearers enter a deep trance-like state.
If you’re in KL during Thaipusam, catching this one-of-a-kind festival at Batu Caves is a must!