Thursday 9 February 2017

Malaysia: Thaipusam at Batu Caves, Selangor

Every year, about a million Hindu devotees go to Batu Caves, Selangor in Malaysia, to give thanks & also pray on Thaipusam. Reportedly the largest Thaipusam festival outside of India, it appeals to non-Hindus too, who attend it mostly for the kavadis (“burden”) carried by the devotees which, more often than not, make for some colourful and emotionally strong photos. Beyond kavadis and photos though, do you know what happens on Thaipusam? Here’s my Instagram photo story, based on my visit to Batu Caves on Thaipusam.

Preparation for kavadi bearers can start as early as 2 weeks before Thaipusam, when they’d begin a vegetarian diet, abstain from any sexual activities & perform regular prayers, among others. Fasting starts a day before and by the time they need to start carrying their kavadi, most would’ve entered into a state of trance that helps them go through the pain of vels (skewers) or needles being pierced through their skin.

On Thaipusam itself, the day starts early at Batu Caves. For some devotees, however, it would start the previous night when they’d have joined a procession from a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur city centre and walked some 20 km to Batu Caves in the neighbouring state of Selangor.

Batu Caves

This is the view that devotees (and visitors) get when they reach Batu Caves on Thaipusam. This is when one’s patience & faith get truly tested. They'd have to climb the 272-step stairway, among a heavy crowd, into the cave to get to the temple inside for their offerings & prayers.

A Day of Thanksgiving, and a Festival

With the number of devotees and other visitors involved (usually estimated to be well over 1 million), a festival atmosphere ensues. In the areas around the foot of Batu Caves, there are booths and stalls selling almost anything, including religiously-significant items, such as these flower garlands, which use only certain flowers and leaves according to Hinduism.

A Family Affair

Thaipusam, in general, is a personal journey of faith. Some, however, make it a family affair, doing the journey & "celebrating" it together. It is thus a normal sight to see children taking part in the day’s procession, alongside their parents and other family members.

Shaving the head is one of the rituals that can be seen performed during Thaipusam, not just among men but also among women and children. Done either at the start of the day or just before making their way to the temple inside the cave, the act is said to symbolise purification, self-sacrifice and humility.

The Shower

A quick shower usually follows after the shave. Traditionally done by taking a dip in Batu River (which is located not far from the cave), these days many devotees opt for the convenience of open shower facility that's been built by the local authority by the river bank. 

Other visitors might be tempted to join in on a hot day like this. I know I was. 

The Kavadi

Carrying a kavadi, whether a pot of milk like above or even getting body parts pierced with skewers, is a choice and is part of a personal journey on Thaipusam, to give thanks for wishes previously granted or to ask for help to fulfil a wish. 

Personal Journey of Faith with a Support System

While carrying a kavadi could be a personal option, you can see that most of these devotees – especially those with vels (skewers) or needles pierced through/on their body - have the support from family & friends to help them get through their journey of faith on Thaipusam. 

The Struggle and the Patience

Those who have previously been to Batu Caves would know that climbing the 272-step stairway could be a challenge even on ordinary days. This could easily turn into a struggle on Thaipusam, especially when the crowd is in full swing, the sun above is blazing, and you’re carrying a kavadi. 

Just imagine the patience and self-restraint that are required. Something many of us, myself included, can learn a thing or two. 

Food for Thought (and for the stomach too)

Some tips if you're planning to attend Thaipusam at Batu Caves: 
  • Go early & have breakfast beforehand. There is, however, plenty of food stalls there. Don't forget to try some Indian desserts too, like laddhu above;
  • Bring bottled water; and most importantly 
  • If you’re a non-Hindu and are there to experience Thaipusam and capture some photos, do provide some space to devotees who are there to perform their religious duty according to their Hindu faith. In the thick of the action, and with the heavy crowd, it’s easy to forget this and find yourself right smack in someone else’s face. 


On Pinterest? Use these photos to bookmark and/or share this blog post. 😉

Have you experienced Thaipusam at Batu Caves (or anywhere else, for that matter) before? How did you find it? If you haven’t, would you like to attend it one day and see it for yourself? Or would you rather not, to allow the devotees to perform their religious duties & ceremonies without the distraction of the tourist crowd?

Going to Kuala Lumpur?
Do check out these hotels for your accommodation requirements there.

For other blog entries on Malaysia, click here.
For other Instagram travel photo series, click here.

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Comments and feedback are always appreciated. So do leave one or two if you have the time. Thank you!

  1. Thanks for the captivating introduction to this intriguing festival that I've never heard before! Your pictures are emotionally strong, indeed. I'd love to visit Batu caves some time and would consider to be incredibly lucky to witness the festival itself.

    1. Thanks, Niina! This year's Thaipusam festival fell on Thursday 9th Feb (yesterday, here) actually but Batu Caves is quite a popular destination even on normal days so anytime is a good time to visit. More so on Thaipusam itself.

  2. I'm going to Malaysia in August (crossing my fingers), and I would really love to see the Batu Caves! Bookmarking this for future reference. :)

    1. Hi Johanna, that's good to know! Batu Caves is usually good for a 1/2 day trip out of KL using the local train service. Hope you'd make it here in Aug!

  3. I've read so much about this, and yet I feel so drawn to this history, the colors and the scents I can only perceive through photography. You did such a good job!

  4. I have sent so many people to Malaysia working as a travel consultant. Today i come to know why everyone request a stop at Batu Caves after reading this post. really worth visiting.

    1. Yes, Batu Caves is one of the more popular destinations near Kuala Lumpur. More so on Thaipusam.

  5. Loving all your photos in this! The culture really comes through :)

  6. I grew up in Malaysia and had always seen how the Hindu celebrated this festival! I would love to go back and participate the one in Batu Caves!

    1. Ah-ha! I've only been to Batu Caves on Thaipusam twice, so far. Quite an eye-opening experience & certainly enjoyed taking photos there, heh! You should try to see the celebration yourself, Cathy. Next year, perhaps? ;)

  7. Visited Batu Caves last 2014 but I have no idea what takes place there during celebrations and festivities. Thanks for sharing!

    Joy of fatmoments.com

    1. Hi Joy! Yes, many people visit Batu Caves on other days but it's actually best visited during Thaipusam. Time for a revisit, perhaps? ;)

  8. What a great experience!! i love your photos :-)

  9. This looks like such an experience! Malaysia really is culture rich, glad you had a great time

    1. Hi Josie, I sure did, despite the blazing sun on the day. ;)

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