Thaipusam Festival

When the alarm went off at 5am it felt like a sick joke and took me ages to peel my eyes open .After a shower, coffee and a few digestive biscuits we’re ready to leave and get in a taxi and ask him to take us to the bus station. The taxi drivers last night quoted us 200 ringett to take us to the festival but as the bus is only 2 ringitt each there’s no contest.

The Thaipusam festival is one of the largest and most dramatic Hindu festivals. It is held at Batu Caves which are a well known tourist attraction near KL. The caves are huge and reached by a straight flight of 272 steps. Inside are elaborate sculptures of Hindu gods and Lord Subramaniam, the son of Shiva is the main attraction. It is estimated that 1.5 million pilgrims attend the festival which is always held in late January, early February. They come to honour Lord Subramaniam, sometimes with acts of amazing physical resilience, ask for a favour or repent their sins.

Thaipusam is described as a wild orgy of seemingly hideous body piercings. As we near the caves the numbers of people increase dramatically and it is only around 7am. The entrance to the cave is clear to see and there is a tall Hindu god standing at the foot of the steps as if guarding the entrance to the caves. The noise is overwhelming with massive speakers blasting Hindu music, thousands of voices crying out “vel, vel” and beating drums.

The greatest spectacle here are the kavadi carriers; some devotees subject themselves to masochistic acts as fulfilment for answered prayers .Many people carry offerings of milk to the gods, which is carried in pots attached to the skin by hooks. We make our way nearer to the steps; there is a slow and steady procession of people winding their way from the left up the steps. I thought that we wouldn’t see any of the devotees close up but we seem to be right in the thick of it all and they would be impossible to miss.

Some carry on their heads, great cages of spikes that pierce their skin. They stand around 3 metres tall and are decorated with peacock feathers, flowers, pictures of deities and plastic dolls amongst other things. They must weigh a ton, but the carriers seem to be in a trance and many of them dance around. Each carrier has a group of people with them who appear to be offering encouragement, rubbing their legs, lighting their cigars and giving them drink. We see coconuts been thrown onto the ground before them and bowls of fire and incense are carried.

As we stand open mouthed in amazement at what are witnessing, the kavadi carriers start to make their way past us. This must be the most unbelievable sight I have ever seen. The carriers are young men often with blood streaming down their faces. Their mouths are full of red dye also and mixed with the blood they look terrifying. They are in a religious trance and shriek, pant and scream as they pull themselves forward. Attached to them by numerous hooks embedded in their skin are other men who attempt to pull them back.
They are decorated with fruit, (mainly limes but also apples, oranges and bananas) green leaves and small silver milk pots. These are all attached to their skin by hooks. Many of the devotees have spikes, skewers and hooks through their cheeks and tongues.

The kavadi carriers are flanked by pilgrims with shaven heads, many of them are wearing yellow but I haven’t been able to find out the significance of this. Babies are carried in cradles made from sugarcane stalks.

We decide to brave the thousands and join the procession. I am very nervous about this due to the sheer number of people streaming up the steps towards the cave but everyone is moving quite slowly as the cage wearers can only take a few steps at a time before they have to sit and rest. I clutch tightly onto the kids hands and we inch our way along.

I think me and the kids actually found some of it very scary to witness and it has left me feeling a bit strange. Not uncomfortable and quite privileged in many ways but definitely weird. Seeing the extent of this religious fervour is a thought provoking thing and I guess that we probably won’t experience anything quite like it anywhere else. I also find it interesting that this festival is actually banned in India and yet celebrated with such enthusiasm here, in a mainly Muslim country.

Eventually we reach the top of the steps, the relatively small entrance to the cave opens out into a huge space and the procession of people continues far inside. Some of the devotees look at the point of collapse and are being urged on by their attendants. We decide that we have seen enough and after taking some more photos join the queue to make our way down again.

The festival is the culmination of a month of preparation including prayers, a strict vegetarian diet, sleeping on a hard floor, abstinence from sex and as a taxi driver told me “no dirty words!” Witnessing it has been an amazing opportunity for us and the kids and today has been very special.

We return to KL by bus and head to China town to get some lunch, none of us have much have an appetite and we spend a quiet afternoon back at the hostel. Simon does some maths with the kids and as we have a wireless connection I surf the net and check some emails.

We are planning to leave KL tomorrow for Penang and need to sort out our tickets and accommodation. I’ve been looking at the photographs from this morning, they are quite compelling, beautiful and horrible also and I feel quite stunned by it.

Just got in, we have been to book our tickets to Penang and then went to Nando’s for dinner. It only cost us 12 quid and was a familiar and comforting treat after the strange excitement of today.