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