Thaipusam ~ A Walk of Faith

Thaipusam is a spectacular Hindu festival celebrated each year, beginning on the night of a full moon in the auspicious 10th Tamil month of Thai when the star of well-being, Pusam, rises over the eastern horizon which normally falls in January or February on the Western Calendar. It is mostly observed by the Tamil community around the world; however the manifestation of the festival is best witnessed in Malaysia at Batu Caves. Having witnessed the celebration twice, the festivities centered at Batu Caves is an exciting and thrilling spectacle. Over 1 million devotees and visitors has been recorded visiting Batu Caves for the celebration each year.

Entrance of Batu Cave

Entrance of Batu Caves

There are plenty of stories what Thaipusam is all about. Among the most popular is that it commemorates the day the powerful goddess Parvathi, gives her son, Murugan, the spear “vel” to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman which were plaguing the world. Some say it is to celebrate the birthday of the Hindu god Murugan. However, for the Hindus today, the festival is a day of penance and thanksgiving. They also believed that sins can be cleansed during Thaipusam. On the eve of Thaipusam, the festival begins with a five-ton chariot pulled by two bulls and followed by a procession of several thousand people from the Sri Mahamariaman temple in downtown Kuala Lumpur, on a 15-kilometre trek to Batu Caves. In a loud carnival atmosphere, drums beat and long wooden flute, could be heard crooning devotional tunes and trance inducing rhythms. The procession weaves through major streets of the city and takes more than 8 hours to reach its destination.

On the day of celebration, the devotees who take part shaved their heads and bathed at the nearby Sungai Batu, which is about 1.5 km from the entrance of Batu Caves. Unlike the scene at Varanasi (Banaras) in India where one could see the devotees bathed in Ganges River, here the devotees use open showers to bathe. I can understand why this had to be done. Looking at the river of Sungai Batu, it is in such deplorable state and definitely not fit for bathing. The temple authorities had constructed line of showers as an alternative.

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From here the devotees carry offerings commonly a simple pot of milk, walk the 1.5 km bare footed and climb the 272 steps to the temple in the main cave to seek forgiveness for past deeds or to thank Lord Murugan for wishes granted. Some devotees have opted to carry the Kavadi, a wooden arch decorated with peacock feathers and pots of honey. Kavadi carriers are devotees who have requested favours, and have had their favour granted or wish to atone for past misdeeds. Usually, a vow is made to carry the Kavadi. Common requests are recovery from illness, success in examinations or business. These forms of offerings are overshadowed by more elaborate ones with huge metal frames and bedecked with decorations in the belief that the larger the Kavadi the more resolute is one’s devotion. Skewers protruding through cheeks and metal hooks and spikes are also to be seen. This is a quaint evolution of the celebrations and according to some its origins are lost in antiquity. Some devotees however, choose to believe that the only way to salvation is to endure a penance of pain and hardship. Seeing the Hindu priest protruding a skewer through one of the devotee’s cheeks for the first time, did make my legs feel like jelly but I avoided the embarrassment of fainting. As I watched the whole spectacle, I chatted with a few local Indians and according to them leading up to the event, devotees who take part in the festival prepare themselves by cleansing their bodies by undertaking days of fasting, praying and abstinence. During this period, the devotees usually observed strict vegetarian diet and their minds are attuned to only one thing; spirituality and liberation from all forms of worldly desires. This is my theory though, almost all the devotees are in trance-like state and I believe that the reason for them to be able to tolerate the pain, if any. I don’t deny that I was amazed with what the devotees are willing to go through in the name of faith, but there were times I got goose bump and felt my hair at the back of my neck stood up.

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Family, relatives and friends will accompany the Kavadi bearer to the temple giving him all the encouragement especially through the arduous 272 steps climb to the main cave. Traditional musical instruments are played, and chants of “Vel, Vel” and smell of incense filled the air. Once they reached the temple, the milk or honey offering is poured on the statue of the deity as an act of thanksgiving. Those with hooks and skewers have a priest chant over them. The hooks and skewers are removed and the wounds are treated with hot ash. Believe it or not, there is not a drop of blood, no pain and even more amazing no scar at all. I do have a second theory on this, but this time I’ll keep it to myself.

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Thaipusam is one of the most visually and culturally stunning festivals I have experienced. If you have patience with crowd and are in town during the celebration, don’t miss to see this amazing Walk of Faith.

Going down undahh Part 2 ~ Koala and Kangaroos

22nd April 2012 – It was already 9 a.m. when we woke up. It was bright and sunny outside and the weather is forecasted to be good all day. An outdoor activity – a trip to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary would be just perfect. We skipped breakfast and head to the city to catch the bus to the sanctuary.

If you want to take the bus to Lone Pine from Brisbane you could do so by taking bus number 445 that leaves from bus stop 40 at Adelaide Street or bus number 430 that leaves from Platform B4, Queen Street bus station. I’ve got this information from the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary website.

I chose to take the bus from Adelaide Street because it’s nearer. It took us more or less 30 minutes to walk from our hostel to bus stop 40. The bus time table indicates that the next bus to Lone Pine is in 10 minutes at 11.10 a.m. So we waited…its 11.15 a.m, tick tock tick tock 11.20 a.m, tick tock tick tock hmmm…. still no sight of bus 445. I checked the bus time table again and oopss!! Bus 445 to Lone Pine does not service this stop on Sunday. Geezzz how did i miss that! There was no other choice, so head to Queens Street bus station, which is 2 blocks away. We came across and visited the tourist information centre. We bought the entrance tickets to Lone Pine here as they offered 10% off from the normal price. By the time we arrived at the bus terminal, it was already 11.40 a.m. and we had just missed bus 430 to Lone Pine. The next bus is at 12.30 p.m. So we decided to grab brunch at the food court above the terminal ~ chicken kebab with rice for me and chicken kebab in wrap for my friend. We had wasted a couple of hours for failing to get the earlier bus to Lone Pine but were still in high spirit.

12.30 p.m. sharp bus 430 made its way to Lone Pine. The journey took about 45 minutes. Luckily we had already bought the entrance tickets and avoided the long queue at the sanctuary. I have promised to meet up with my nephew later that day. So we planned to spend about 2 hours at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and catch the 3.30 p.m bus back to the city. High on our agenda was to see the koalas and kangaroos, two of Australian’s wildlife premier icon.

As we entered the wildlife sanctuary, we were greeted by a noisy bird that looks like a turkey. Suddenly my friend starts jumping and running away. Then I saw an iguana crawling under the bushes. A few other visitors start to freak out too. Nothing to be alarmed as the iguana looked harmless and was going about doing its own things.

Our first stop was the southern zone. It was my 1st sighting of marsupial we called koala. They looked like a cuddly teddy bear. There were 3 koalas, two of them holding tightly to the tree branch and probably sleeping. The third one was walking up and down, not bothered at all by the many visitors. Then we went to the retirement home. By the name, this is where the “oldies” are kept. They must be the “star” of the sanctuary once, and doesn’t mind to entertain the visitors with picture perfect pose. Then we went to the kindergarten section where the cute young koalas are kept. It is interesting to see them playing, rolling and give each other a massage. Finally we arrived at the koala cuddling section. You need to pay AUD$16 to cuddle a koala and get your photo taken. This is above the entrance fee of AUD$33 (AUD$30 if you buy from tourist information centre at Queens Street). I know this may sound expensive, but it’s once in a lifetime experience and we cannot resist ourselve not to cuddle the cute koala. I did feel ashamed because we were as excited as the young children queuing for this experience…hahah! I think the koala that I cuddled likes me…;P. We collected our koala photos from the souvenir shop and bought some koala souvenirs for friends at home and a packet of kangaroos munchies for our next adventure up close with Australian wildlife. 

In Lone Pine there are 2 types of kangaroos; the red kangaroos and the grey kangaroos. Entering the kangaroo reserve, we saw two wombats soundly sleeping in its burrow. There’s also the emu and ostrich. The kangaroos are allowed to roam freely in the reserve. They seem to know that when there’s visitors there’s food. We went to a group of kangaroos who are just lying on the grass. Two quickly stand up and came nearer to us. My friend quickly pulled out the munchies and they eagerly waited to be fed. I put some of the pellets on my palm and fed one of the kangaroos. Yikes! He used his toungue which was full of saliva to eat the pellets from my palm.

After the feast, we realised that one of them has a baby in its pocket. Only the legs were jutting out…must be sleeping….after about 15 minutes, the head pop out…I was so thrilled and no words can described that moment….it was really incredible. I guessed it’s probably mating season, we could see male kangaroos fighting over a female and a couple happily cuddling each other. In another group, a mother breastfeeding its kid and one male kangaroo was soundly sleeping and just didn’t want to be disturbed.

It was a bit unfortunate we couldn’t stay longer to see some of the other attractions at Lone Pine. But I wouldn’t want to miss the 3.30 pm bus to the city. Anyway I had promised my nephew to meet up for dinner and handover all the stuffs my sister bought for him. For first timer in Australia and if you are in Brisbane, do not miss to visit this place. It would be great for kids too.

Italian Escapade 2010

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I have just completed my first photobook of our great trip to Italy in 2010 covering the main attractions in Rome, Pisa, San Gimignano, Florence, Venice and Lake Garda. Please click on the link Italian Escapade 2010 and hope you enjoy browsing the pdf version. I would like to work on other photobook soon, so your comments are welcome.