Seeking the Sacred: Thaipusam
In Kuala Lumpur, we've been gearing up for the upcoming public holidays that honor the richness and diversity of Malaysian life, namely Thaipusam and Chinese New Year. Malaysians and expats alike adore this festive season that this year, per the Tamil and Lunar calendars respectively, follow so closely on the heels of Christmas and New Years.
Even if you've previously visited, or even lived in India as I have, you'll likely be caught off guard by the the staggering grandeur of devotion on display during the holy Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. It's beautiful, it's overwhelming, and it draws you in closely, pressed tight against the saffron clad bodies of Lord Sri Murugan's devotees.
But first a little bit of history to put the photos & our experience into perspective!
Thaipusam originates from Tamil Nadu, India's southern most state and is celebrated through out Malaysia and other countries with large Tamil Hindu populations including Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia among others. Malaysia is renowned for having some of the largest, most extravagant Thaipusam celebrations in the world - regularly drawing over a million devotees and observers alike to the temples in Batu Caves.
In the Tamil language, Thaipusam conveys the month the festival is held (Thai) and the name of the Pusam star, which on this holy day reaches its zenith in the sky. Thaipusam commemorates Lord Murugan's victory over the demon Surapadman with a holy spear - a Vel - that was bequeathed to him by his mother, the Goddess Parvathi, consort to Lord Shiva.
His actions in vanquishing evil and his penance at Thiruparankundram, an ancient Indian holy temple appeased the Goddess Parvathi enough to lift an earlier curse placed on him, and thus set forth the tradition of Thaipusam; wherein devotees of Murugan offer to undertake their own penance by performing 'Kavadi' in hopes this will vanquish the personal demons that impede their own happiness - such the illnesses of loved ones, and difficulties in love or career.
Kavadi itself signifies the deliberate undertaking of a specific burden, whether that involves fasting, the physical act of carrying heavy structures kilometer after kilometer, or piercing their flesh with symbolic vels and hooks attached with offerings.
The stream of devotees is continuous, with many walking barefoot from Sri Mahamariamman temple over 15 kilometres away. During the day, an imposing, golden 100 meter tall statue of Lord Murugan guides one to the foot of Batu Caves and its temples within. As the night sky darkens, a gorgeous full moon hangs heavy and low, together with bright Pusam star, lighting their way. The moon is always full on Thaipusam.
As we approached Batu Caves, an expanse of tall limestone hills on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, carefully winding through rows of cars double and triple parked; we paused to take in the festival atmosphere - a true mela - that featured hastily arranged stalls selling luscious sweets, bright saris and salwar kameez, and all sorts of religious trinkets.
I quickly scanned the stalls hungrily for samosas having very uncharacteristically missed lunch, but fellow culture vulture Farena and my husband urged me onward. As first timers to Thaipusam, they were eager to move deeper into the festival.
I sighed, glanced again at the array of sweets stacked temptingly high - julebi, ladoo, barfi, oh my! - and made a promise to nab one, maybe three, on the way out.
Lining the path towards the caves, a number of stalls offered hair shaving and piercing services. Mounds of hair lay clumped in heaps, remnants of all the devotees that had come ahead of us.
Men and women alike, stop on the way up to the temples, to be shorn of their locks. With newly bald heads, rubbed bright yellow with turmeric, they are fulfilling yet another step in their vows. We feel especially the weight of this devotion by the women who give up treasured tresses in their beseechment of Lord Murugan to answer their prayers, or to give thanks for prayers already answered.
Many of the devotees start preparing for Thaipusam by fasting and praying anywhere from one month to a couple days in advance, and by the time they draw near to the caves, many are already in a deep trance-like state. It's a humbling experience to be near people swept up in the depth of their devotion, and we realized our deep privilege to be allowed to witness it firsthand.
The scents of Thaipusam are pungent - the sweat as it rolls off the body, whiffs of fragrant blooms, turmeric and perfumes all mixed together in the evening air.
And throughout it all, the temple announcement speakers blared overhead in a steady stream of Tamil, while the rhythmic beats of drummers urged devotees ever onward. All around us, the loud chants and encouragement of "Vel, Vel!" rang through the air.
The crowd parts respectfully to allow the stream of devotees to reach the base of the temple and we watched wide-eyed as people passed with their individual Kavadis - some with ornately beautiful structures, festooned with peacock feathers, that rise many feet above them, others with small vels pierced through their cheeks and tongues, and many with piercings of limes and little pots of milk embedded into their flesh.
Most often the devotees carry on their heads a simple offering of a brass milk pot. It's a touching sight to see families walking together in clusters and the tiniest of devotees capturing the wide smiles and encouragements of the crowd.
The closer we got to the steps, the more we had to skip and hop over discarded slippers and shoes that people abandoned in piles, as they dipped their hands and heads towards that first step.
As each devotee passed through the bottom gates at the base of the hill, they paused and often whirled to the beats of the drums, ecstatic that they had reached the temples. As they danced, I could feel the energy radiating off of them and filling me with a deep desire to dance alongside them.
We witnessed one devotee with a massive Kavadi structure take to the steps on his knees, determined to tackle 272 steps in complete submission and devotion to Lord Murugan. It was staggering to witness, and yet I could not photograph it. Instead, I watched silently, and then murmured a few extra prayers for his safety and success.
Throughout the festival, what struck me the most was that each Kavadi bearer had a strong support system around them. Sometimes we saw just one friend accompany them with fresh juice & words of encouragement. More often, we noticed several people hovered around the Kavadi bearers like a protective vanguard, particularly those carrying the largest, heaviest structures. A few of these structures were attached to the body directly with sharp metal prongs, so that every step inflicted an additional point of pain as further penance.
These support teams were there to encourage the Kavadi bearer, to provide them with nourishment, and to help them navigate the crowds. Some carried a small stool in case the devotee needs to rest through out the long 8 to 10 hour barefoot walk from temple to the temple in the blistering heat.
But most of all, it seemed that they were simply there to be present with their family, with their friends. They stood witness to their penance and dedication, and they celebrated and encouraged them at every step - Vel, Vel!
I find it all so moving. That's what draws me back to Thaipusam again and again. Not the ornate and slightly terrifying piercings but that sense of community, of closeness, of being present in a huge, swelling crowd and feeling the joy, dedication and sense of self-sacrifice all around you.
It's a spectacularly vibrant, clamorous, devotional tableau, but it's remarkably peaceful. And as I was swept up in the surging crowd, a glance upwards reconnected me to the sanctity of these caves.
We entered Thaipusam as curious observers. Walking alongside the devotees, climbing the steps together and encouraging them, we left feeling connected to this greater community and ever so privileged to share in their transcendental moment.
As we walked out into the night, each of us lost in our own thoughts of prayers and penance, the full moon lit our own humble path home.
For those still curious, a few more photos from Thaipusam 2016: