For the Thaipusam festival, 2013, I took off to the Batu Cave, just north of Kuala Lumpur.
Thaipusam Festival is actually a Hindu Festival. And since there are swathes of Hindu descendants and Indian emigrants here, there’s plenty of Tamil in the air. There’s also plenty of uniquely Indian scents abound as well. I’ll let you make your own assumptions as to which one is less pleasant.
In any case, this celebration comes at the Jan/Feb Tamil month of Thai — hence the name. And it falls on the last full moon in this period.
The festival itself is more of a gathering of people collected with a focus on sacrifice. But it doesn’t start at the festival. The Hindus who show up in 2013 are the ones who had their prayers answered sometime in 2012. They came to this cave, prayed in the temple built into its cavern and were fortunate enough for their wishes to be granted by Murugan, the god of the Tamils.
Of all the mythical religions in human history, the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana, are my favorites. The stories are more colorful, widely expanded and creatively linked and more intricately intertwined throughout the hundreds of years over which they were created than the Greek, Norse or Egyptian mythology combined.
Officially, Thaipusam is the date which Parvati, the wife of Shiva, gave Murugan, her son, a spear with which he was to vanquish the evil from Soorapadman, the demon son of an Persian princess.
Unofficially, the story says that upon instruction by Shiva to his dwarf sage, Agastya, two hillocks (conically shaped hills or small mountains) were to be built for ceremonial purposes in Southern India. Agastya in turn charged his disciple, Idumban, with the task.
Even for mythical creatures, lifting mountains must be a huge task. So after finding a suitable mountain he needed to move, Idumban sought assistance in a seemingly homeless boy in rags. But the boy refused, saying that the mountain that Idumban wanted to move actually belonged to him.
Angered, Idumban punished the boy with lashings. But as it turned out, the boy was Murugan in an earthly form, sent there to keep an eye on the completion of the task.
Idumban pleaded for forgiveness. And in doing so, he carried a hillock-shaped rock to the top of the mountain. And in return for his sacrifice, Murugan spared Idumban’s life and granted one wish.
Today, devotees who’ve had their prayers answered by Murugan, come from all over the world to this and other locations to perform similar acts of sacrifice. And while it is celebrated all over Malaysia (and India, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia), the two places that this festival is the grandest here are at the Batu Cave and in Penang. In both places, the visiting Hindus climb the many stairs up to the top of a cave.
Some carry giant, colorfully ornamental items on their shoulders in a show of their appreciation (thus their sacrifice) for their answered prayers.
The main part of the celebration involves the procession of devotees from the mother’s temple, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, in the Kuala Lumpur’s China Town area, to Batu Caves. It is a 13-kilometer journey done barefoot.
The day before the procession begins, the murti, a majestic silver chariot, is cleaned and elaborately decorated. The murti normally waits in the mother’s temple. But on the day of Thaipusam, the murti is brought to a chariot and tugged along by men with hooks in their backs attached to ropes pulling the cart. This journey usually takes about 8 hours.
Those who choose to engage in castigation normally shave their heads (not just limited to the men) or carry items up the stairs in the blistering Malaysian heat. The hillock-like ornament that some men choose to carry up the hill is called a Kavadi. It is generally made of the lightest material possible (aluminum frame with peacock feathers and colored paper, balanced on the shoulders and the “penitent” observer who is even assisted up the hill, many times by their friends carrying them to the top. But I am sure Murugan still appreciates the gesture.
Most people walk around and pretend to be in a trance in order to “let the gods in” and allow them to be free of the pain involved in skewering themselves along the chest, back, arms and face. A similar festival takes place in Thailand in October called The Vegetarian Festival. They like to trance it up and pierce themselves with everything from hypodermic needles to the muzzles of M16s.
What most people carry around at Thaipusam, though, is a jug of milk balanced on the head and carried to the top where it is poured into a giant vat. I never figured out what happens with the milk by the end of the day when it’s surely acquired a pungent aroma in the humid Southeast Asian heat. Where’s an army of kittens when you need one?
What I liked most about the festival is that many people aren’t praying for more money, a nice car, or a new video game. Okay, some are. But most come here to give thanks for Murugan’s blessings in healing a sick child, getting lucky in love, or the most revered miracle of them all; to become pregnant. And in the event that this last stroke of luck has befallen those who’ve asked it of the great Murugan, the women will carry their babies draped in saffron robes and balanced on sugar cane stems throughout the journey.
It’s an interesting three days in Southeast Asia. And I highly recommend that you catch the next one!