By Annabelle Lee
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – Tamil Hindus celebrate Thaipusam once a year in honour of Lord Murugan, the Hindu God of War. In Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, it is celebrated at Batu Caves (meaning rock caves). More than 1.6 million people travel to Batu Caves for Thaipusam.
The limestone caves are unmistakable even amid the Thaipusam traffic along the Middle Ring Road 2 highway. What stands out most however is the 42 metre, gold-coloured statue of Lord Murugan that guards the mouth of the cave. It is the tallest Lord Murugan statue in the world. In the Hindu religion, Lord Murugan is the son of Lord Shiva and the brother of Lord Ganesha. In his right hand he holds a “vel” (a spear) that he used to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman. Thaipusam commemorates this triumph of good over evil.
Batu Caves is a sea of yellow and orange as these are the colours of Lord Murugan. During Thaipusam, devotees make vows to Lord Murugan. “You can make a vow for your studies or for any sickness or problems, anything troubling you,” says Poomalar who travelled to Batu Caves with her grand nephew Anaantha. “A vow is personal, never to be shared with others until it is fulfilled, ” says Anaantha.
A realised vow is like an answered prayer. During Thaipusam devotees perform acts of devotion as they make their pilgrimage up Batu Caves to honour the vows they make to Lord Murugan.
It is common for many women and men to go bald for Thaipusam.
Many choose to carry “chembus” (stainless steel pots filled with milk).
Some choose to pierce their skin with hooks that have limes, green apples or small chembus attached. This is done as an act of penance to Lord Murugan.
Some make the pilgrimage up Batu Caves carrying kavadis. A kavadi is an elaborate altar decorated with flowers, peacock feathers (as peacocks are Lord Murugan’s main mode of transport) and pictures or statues of Lord Murugan. However, carrying the kavadi is merely one part of the ritual. 48 days before Thaipusam, devotees are required to purify themselves by going on a strict vegetarian diet, sleeping on the floor plus abstaining from sex, alcohol and smoking.
Early on Thaipusam morning, kavadi-carrying devotees begin by fully immersing themselves in the Batu River as Hindu priests chant prayers. The Batu River flows past Batu Caves.
Amid the prayers, many devotees go into trance and this is when they get their tongue pierced with a vel (a miniature version of Lord Murugan’s spear). Kavadi porters or family members then help devotees put on the kavadi. The tall wood and metal structure is anchored to the body by attaching it to a wide metal belt around the waist.
Devotees then begin their procession towards Batu Caves. Processions begin near the Batu River and end with a climb up the 272 steps at Batu Caves. It is 31 degrees and humid but most devotees walk barefoot on the black tar road. The atmosphere is festive yet deeply religious, with chembu and kavadi-carrying devotees chanting, dancing and spinning the whole way.
Upon arrival at the top of the steps, devotees enter the cave and pass their chembus to a priest. The priest empties the milk onto a statue of Lord Murugan. Kavadis, tongue-piercings and all body hooks are removed.
Devotees then ascend a smaller flight of steps deeper into the cave where they complete their Thaipusam pilgrimage.