Flesh for Redemption: How I got inside the Hindu Festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia

Sometimes when I travel amazing things happens and I find myself in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to arrive in Kuala Lumpur on the very day the Festival of Thaipusam was going on! It lasts only one day and is celebrated every year. What a chance!!! During an impressive ceremony involving offerings and self-flagellation, thousands of women, men and children expiate their faults by flogging themselves and imploring the forgiveness of Lord Murugan, the God of War, the son of Shiva (Creator of the Universe), who came to Earth to fight evil. His emblems are the spear and the peacock feather. Lord Murugan statue was impossible to miss: a massive golden statue of the god was placed at the bottom of a great staircase that ends at the entrance of the Batu Caves.

I had just left the airport and was going to the hotel when I observed a crowd gathering somewhere. I wasn’t even aware they were at the entrance of the Batu Caves.

I’ve never heard of the caves before. The taxi driver explained that all those were pilgrims Tamil Hindus and they were celebrating the Thaipusam. I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “Can you wait 10 minutes while I do my check-in? I want to go there.” The taxi driver agreed.

I was so impressed! Everything was so colorful, dramatic, sensorial! Those people seemed to walk in another dimension. I stood still for a while, overwhelmed by the colors, the smell of flowers, incense, sweat, smoke. My brain trying to absorb all those impressions.

I was also afraid of the religious intensity, to say the least. I saw believers piercing themselves in apparently impossible ways. And it’s true that there’s no blood. How? They seemed in a profound trance, in communion with their gods. I envied them for a while. Hooks, needles, spears: it seems to be no limit to self-flagellation. Wish I had a mind that strong.

There was something else in the air I cannot describe. I didn’t belong there. I was an intruder, an unbeliever. The gods knew.

The Festival begins with small rituals, amplified by the number of believers performing them. Hundreds of men and women purify themselves in the river early in the morning, after fasting for one or more days. The offerings are prepared, and prayers are said.

Young Hindu devotees are having their heads shaved before the beginning of their pilgrimage. In order to be able to carry out a pilgrimage, the devotees have to prepare their body and mind by taking on a vegetarian diet for one month before, refraining from the intake of intoxicating substances and having a general peaceful state of mind.
Credit: Al Jazeera

A long time ago, the ceremony consisted only in the presentation of offerings at the foot of an altar located at the top of a mountain. Over the years, the believers began to use the kavadi, a kind of ornamented basket in which the fruits of the offering are placed.

The kavadi:

After the purification, the believers enter into a trance, a second stage after the state of contemplation. Fatigue, fasting, dancing, and prayers place the penitents in a state of physical insensibility, a spiritual drunkenness, which allows them to impose voluntary tortures without pain.

Bellow, me climbing the stairs of the massive stairway, halfway to the entrance of the Batu Caves, in the end of the day, when the majority of the penitents had already left (I had to wait a lot to take this photo)🤪and getting into the spirit of the thing with these super welcoming Tamil girls:

Then comes the long walk, embellished with dances and songs, which leads the believers to the bottom of the 272 steps they climb one by one, on their knees, supported by relatives and friends, to finally reach the interior of the cave, where the offerings are placed at the foot of the altar of Murugan, after a final dance the penitents are delivered from their piercings.

The Thaipusam takes place every year between mid-January and early February, the tenth month of the Hindu calendar.

Epilogue: In the Batu Caves complex there are lots of sympathetic little monkeys that will eat fruits from your hand! They’re extremely agile, so be sure to be faster with your camera to grab a shot of one of these simiesque cuties!

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batu caves monkey

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