Thaipusam

January 17, 2014
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Photo credit: Copyright Calvin Chan via Shutterstock
Thaipusam Malaysia
Crowd
    Intimate to                 Massive
Attendees
    Local to                 International
Participation
    Spectator to                 Immersive
Preparation
    Simple to                 Complicated
Transformation
    Quiet to                 Life-Altering

Overview

We’re all on a journey for truth, but sometimes the truth hurts. In a self-sacrificing journey, devotees pierce their skin as penance for answered prayers. 

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Festival Stats
  • Crowd
  • Attendees
  • Participation
  • Preparation
  • Transformation

Location

Batu Caves–the actual caves and the nearby village of the same name–is in the Gombak district, eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Chip's take

Missionaries or masochists? That is the question. As if landing in heat-soaked Kuala…

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Missionaries or masochists? That is the question. As if landing in heat-soaked Kuala Lumpur after 24 hours of non-stop travel isn’t disorienting enough, hightailing it immediately to one of the world’s most graphically-jarring festivals had my stomach turning somersaults. Incessant chanting (Vei vel shakti vel!), monkeys screeching, wafting incense, a glorious moon, a million devotees, hundreds of hooks dangling from tens of thousands of bodies . . . just business as usual for the most fervid festival-goers.

Thaipusam is not for the casual festival attendee. It’s hardcore but well worth the visit if you’re fascinated by exotic, devotional cultures. Check out Chip's blog from the festival.

Hundreds of hooks dangling from tens of thousands of bodies: just business as usual for the most fervid festivalgoers.

Photos & Videos From the Festival

Essentials

Be aware of your surroundings. Everything is constantly in motion, so be especially careful if you’re taking pictures or movies. Watch out for sharp objects. You can run into knives, hooks, and all kinds of odd things during the pilgrimage.

Be prepared to climb stairs. The ascent to the Batu Caves is 272 steps through heat and humidity. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a water bottle. Fortunately, the view from the top gives you a great vantage point.

Head to the caves in the morning. The Hindu mythology wall paintings are best viewed without the crowds.

Use common sense. Don’t make an impromptu decision to pierce your torso with hooks. This ritual is not for amateurs.


Practicalities

While Thaipusam is celebrated in Singapore, India and various parts of Malaysia, the best of them takes place at the Batu Caves outside Malaysia’s capital city. When you get to Kuala Lumpur, you can follow the procession to the caves or take a taxi, a 15-minute ride on non-festival days (otherwise be prepared for traffic).

Details

Thaipusam falls on a full moon and is a remembrance of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. The deity was given a sacred lance by his mother, Shiva’s consort, which he used to slaughter three demons in a victory of good over evil.

Thaipusam takes place over three days. On the first day, a chariot bearing a statue of Lord Murugan departs from the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on a procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. On the second day, participants walk barefoot on a 15-kilmeter (9 miles) path to the Batu Caves to fulfill vows. On the third day, the chariot returns to the Temple.

Most attendees choose to experience only the pilgrimage to the Batu Caves. During the peregrination, Hindu faithfuls carry pots of milk and huge decorated frames (called kavadi, or burden) supported by spikes puncturing their chests and back – atonement for their sins. Prior to the day, the bearers of kavadi have prepared themselves spiritually by subsisting on a limited vegetarian diet for a month, fasting completely for the last couple of days, and practicing celibacy the whole time. Between the diet, the heat, the long shoeless trek, and the weight of the kavadi, the followers are nearly in a trance when they arrive at the bottom of the hill that leads up to the Batu Caves. Beware that the person next to you may spontaneously erupt in flailing arms and erratic dance moves.  

No Physical Pain, No Spiritual Gain

Why go to this extreme? These devout Hindus would ask the same question of those Americans who begrudgingly commute to work three hours each day in order to afford a gargantuan ranch home in a gated suburb. That’s a different form of torture. Participants perform the ritual only once a year, primarily as a means of demonstrating their gratitude and commitment to overcoming obstacles. The wounds caused by the hooks and lances are immediately treated with lemon juice and holy ash in order to prevent scarring. So, while in the moment, it may seem a little gory, the adherents of the custom believe that a short-term bodily pain is worth a long-term spiritual gain.

Historian Bettany Hughes once said, “Socrates thought it futile to catalogue the world without first loving it.” That almost obsessive devotion is an apt summary of the Thaipusam experience. It is easy to be judgmental of the unusual and ostensibly painful practice. But, as a festival-goer, you will soon realize that conventions are just a concrete and explicit manifestation of personal values. They’re no different than the survival of the fittest attitude or American gladiator spirit of combat acted out through epic football games during Super Bowl season.

These customs are what pass down wisdom from generation to generation and build a sense of collective identity.

For the Tamil Hindus in Malaysia, Thaipusam represents fidelity to both deities and family. The festival is truly a multi-generational affair: you’ll see people of all ages pricking their faces with thin spears or carrying large art projects on their backs.

West African author Malidoma Some has explained the necessity of tradition, “Where ritual is absent the young ones are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered.” These customs are what pass down wisdom from generation to generation and build a sense of collective identity. Thaipusam acts as a reminder that discipline and devoutness can transcend earthly limitations through the universal love of family and friends and the belief in powers beyond ourselves.