The 272 steps lead to the vast Temple Cave, where numerous shrines to Lord Muruga have been erected
A man wearing little more than a serene expression moves slowly past a huge crowd. He is supporting a many-spoked and brightly-coloured Kavadi (burden) in the form of an elaborately decorated semicircular canopy adorned with flowers and peacock feathers.
This complicated wooden structure is supported by a rod that’s carried on the wearer’s shoulders. A closer inspection reveals the kavadi is also attached to the devotee by large hooks that pierce deeply into his flesh.
|A devotee on procession, carrying an elaborate peacock feathered kavadi||The 13km pilgrimage brims with a multitude of characters|
Welcome to the popular Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves. This, the largest Hindu event in the calendar, celebrates faith, endurance and penance and has been held just north of Kuala Lumpur since 1888. Taking place on the full moon that occurs in the month of Thai (January/February), it commemorates when the Hindu goddess gave a vel (lance) to her son Lord Marugu to defeat the evil demon, Soorapadam.
|The 400-million-year-old Batu Caves are one of the most important Hindu shrines outside of India||As a sign of piety, devotees pierce their bodies and carry burdens called kavadi|
The Hindu participants have spent days or, in some cases, weeks preparing themselves by fasting and praying. On the event’s eve they come together, some with freshly-shaved heads, at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the capital’s Chinatown to decorate the statue of Lord Murugan with jewels. From here the devotees make the 13km pilgrimage to the Batu Caves where over a million people converge to bear witness to the procession of devotees.
As a final act, the kavadi bearer must climb the 272-step stairway leading up to the Temple Cave attended by priests in the culmination of this colourful and unique, if extremely painful-looking, ceremony.
WHERE Batu Caves, Selangor, 13km north of Kuala Lumpur
WHEN 16 January
TEL 03 6189 6285
|Mind Over Matter|
The mortification of the skin is an act of penance that commonly takes the form of one or more vel (spear or lance) through the tongue or cheek. It is believed that this prevents the devotee from speaking while imbuing them with enormous powers of endurance. There are also numerous kavadi hooks inserted into their backs, the position of which can determine the amount of pain. The hooks are attached to ropes that are then pulled by assistants walking behind them but it’s also possible to see them attached to decorated bullock carts. The piercings are smeared with holy ash, composed mainly of dried cow’s dung, which has a long history of use in Indian traditional medicine as an antiseptic. When the vel are removed later the holy ash is used again and there is almost no bleeding. There are studies taking place around the world to ascertain how this is possible and how the devotees appear to be pain-free. There is some debate as to whether this is caused by the induced spiritual and devotional trance the participants enter into to bring them closer to Lord Murugan. This creates an altered state of mind and a sense of euphoria releasing certain hormones that might have an analgesic effect on the body.