Landing in heat-soaked Kuala Lumpur after being on the road for 24 hours can be disorienting. Incessant chanting (“vei vel shakti vel”), monkeys screeching, wafting incense, a glorious moon, and a million people.
Thaipusam falls on a full moon and is the celebration in remembrance of Lord Murugan (his statue pictured at the base of the steep 272 steps to the Waterfall Temple at Batu Caves - the top being the best view) who received the “vel” (sacred spear) from his mother, Shiva’s wife, to kill three demons. Killing internal demons seems to be the order of the day for devotees.
The festivities begin with a chariot bearing the statue of Lord Murugan being drawn through the streets starting from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and then on the second day (when I arrived), the fulfilling of the vows by devotees takes place at the Batu Caves after people walk barefoot approximately 15 kilometers starting in the middle of the night from Kuala Lumpur. The chariot returns to the Temple on the third day.
The real highlight is watching devotees with huge decorated frames (“kavadi”= burden”) supported by spikes that pierce their chests and backs as penance for answered prayers.
As one devotee said to me, “Life is an act of gratitude and this is the ultimate day of gratitude to our deities.” I felt a deep empathy for the intense devotion and commitment of the Tamil Hindus I witnessed. This is truly one of the world’s great festivals of purification and atonement.
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Missionaries or Masochists?
Each of us carries a different burden on our backs.
Religious scholar Huston Smith suggests we’re all on “a pilgrim’s journey to find the truth,” but many of us have less painful ways of getting there.
And, the fabulous anthropological treatise “Pierced by Murugan’s Lance” by Elizabeth Fuller Collins gives a good historical sense of how this festival has grown over the years.
The carriers of the kavadi (decorated wooden frames that pierce their bodies) have prepared themselves spiritually by eating a limited vegetarian diet for a month in advance and fasting in the last couple of days as well as being celibate the whole time. Between their diet, the heat, the 15-kilometer walk barefoot from Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves, and the religious decoration they’re carrying, these devotees are nearly in a trance when they arrive at the bottom of the hill to climb the 272 stairs.
Why do they go to this extreme? I guess these devoted Hindus could ask the same question of some Americans who commute three hours each day in order to afford a gargantuan ranch home in a gated suburb - a different form of torture. These devotees only do this once a year and they do it primarily because it’s a means of showing their commitment to overcome an obstacle or honor a vow.
After the event, the pierce wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring. So, while it may be a little gory in the moment, the devotees believe the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.
Thaipusam Trance Dance: Surrender can Manifest in Many Forms
At the Thaipusam festival, beware that the person next to you may spontaneously erupt in flailing arms and erratic dance moves. This is particularly perilous when it happens midway up the 272 steps to the Batu Caves.
It’s most often for the trance to come upon a devotee when the Swami chants, prays, and clasps the devotee’s head. There are hundreds of sages (or Swamis) with followers all over the Batu Caves grounds. I watched one Swami flick his thumb on a student’s forehead and immediately the student started shaking in a semi-conscious state and then dancing uncontrollably.
This particular student also had a vel (a piercing spear) through his tongue so it was hard to understand what he was saying. Within five minutes, he’d settled down, his vow fulfilled, some new holy ash sprinkled on his forehead, and, with the storm passed, everyone else seemed satiated as well.
Prior to arriving at Thaipusam, I thought that it was mostly men aged 15 to 45 who sacrificed by carrying the kavadi. My surprise was that there were ample numbers of women who were making the trek with milk balanced on their head and, often, a spear through their face.
And, the number of older men (some obviously older than 70) was also intriguing as it’s impressive that they are able to sustain such a grueling burden.
Thaipusam is a perfect precursor to my upcoming trip to the mother of all Hindu festivals, Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
Tip #1: It’s okay to stare, but smile at the devotees as well as their families. Not once did I feel unwelcome, but smiling seemed to be the way I was able to show my respect especially for those who were struggling with their kavadi (wooden structures that represent their burden). Remember these are people in the midst of moral redemption - not the freak show of some carnival.
Tip #2: Be aware of your surroundings especially if you’re taking pictures. Everything is constantly in motion and it’s hard to stand in one place and take photos since people are either walking to the Batu Caves or away from them. More than once, I was taking pictures of one family of devotees and ended up stumbling into another group. So, don’t put blinders on.
Tip #3: Look away if it’s too much. If you get squeamish easily, just know that in the 1970s and before, Thaipusam devotees typically used long skewers that were embedded in the skin over the ribs of the devotee. This practice proved to be more dangerous such that today small silver hooks have become the norm. Don’t point, don’t freak, and don’t lose your lunch.
Tip #4: Bare feet are required in certain places. The devotees who make the 15-kilometer trek to the Batu Caves do it barefoot but they’re in the minority. Yet, once you get into the Caves there are certain devotional spaces that you cannot enter with shoes (and many non-devotees leave their shoes at the bottom of the 272 steps).
How Does Thaipusam Rate on the Human Celebration Index?
Bettany Hughes wrote, “Socrates thought it futile to catalogue the world without first loving it.” Having witnessed the graphic videos and photos of this million-person festival before my journey here, I came ready to judge it less on the internal experience and more based upon the external visuals for spectators like me.
But, I realize that rituals just allow people to make their values concrete and explicit. For the Tamil Hindus in Malaysia, a Muslim country, Thaipusam represents both devotion to deities and to family. This truly is a family affair.
African author Malidoma Some has suggested, “Where ritual is absent the young ones are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered.” We all have rituals. Rituals are what create generational wisdom and a sense of collective meaning.
What I kept asking myself at this first of five Asian festivals I was experiencing over five weeks was, “What is the spirit behind the festival?” Thaipusam exists as a reminder that we can transcend our earthly obstacles through discipline and devotion, through belief in powers beyond ourselves, and through the universal love of family and friends.
“Collective effervescence” is the common currency that’s experienced at the best of festivals where people positively lose themselves and find their connection to something bigger. Festivals remind us we're not alone in this world.