08 August 2011

Thaipusam Festival: A colourful and painful celebration

Earlier this year, during my brief stay in Kuala Lumpur, I decided to join the masses and venture out to the Batu Caves to witness and experience one of the most confronting yet beautiful festivals of my life: the Thaipusam Festival. The Thaipusam Festival is the most significant Hindu display in Malaysia, having been held annually at the Batu Caves since the late 1800s. Before the festival day, pilgrims, mostly of Tamil Indian descent, line the streets to see a statue of Lord Murugan make its way to the Batu Caves. The procession is large and colourful, comprising of a wide variety of devotees who go to different lengths to express their devotion.

Pound the Ground
Yep, that's right, she's not just balancing a bunch of stuff on her head, but she's also got a skewer through her cheeks.
Do not go to the Thaipusam Festival if you don't like crowded places, loud noises, or get grossed out by body piercings. It's estimated that over one million devotees and tens of thousands of tourists were in attendance of the festival this year. Numerous groups of musicians, drummers and dancers energetically expressed their faith, adding to the carnival feel of the event. Stalls were set up for devotees to shave their heads and paint their heads yellow. Women, bearing a rainbow of flowers in their hair paraded around the festival in their shimmering traditional outfits.  Food stalls appeared everywhere, cooking up an assortment of delights that I had never seen before.  And, to keep the kids happy, an amusement park filled with rides, games and balloons was established.

Chair swing for the kids, and big kids like me!
At first, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and colour of this festival.  But then, you see things that remind you that this is a deeply reverential event.  For instance, there were men carrying elaborate and heavy frameworks on their shoulders (called 'kavadis'), which were attached to them by hooks throughout their bodies.  They had to carry these frames up 272 steps to the Batu Caves...after walking several kilometres from the city.

Ouch! Apparently these devotees feel no pain when they do this, and that no blood or scars appear when they remove the skewers.
Then there were the devotees who, whilst experiencing spiritual and devotional trances, deliriously carried pots of milk on their heads up to the caves.  Many of these devotees had skewers pierced through their cheeks and tongues, and looked like they were on the verge of collapsing.

Carrying milk up to the caves
The way to the Batu Caves
I followed the large procession up the 272 steps to reach the Batu Caves.  Here, after days of illustrating their faith, endurance and penance, devotees lay down to rest, recover and eat, and they were duly congratulated by their loved ones.

Inside the Batu Caves, after wriggling my way through others up 272 steps.


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