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.
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.
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.
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.
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.