Thaipusam

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I know I am getting very behind in my blogs here, but there are so many things I want to write about, and with all my recent travels, I have hardly had any time to catch up!

That being said, there was one holiday in January I got to experience that I would really like to share here: Thaipusam. Since my first visit to the Batu Caves in August, I have been looking forward to this event to witness first-hand the more than one million Tamil Hindu devotees who flock to the caves to pay homage to the deity Lord Murugan, to whom the cave’s shrine is dedicated.

What makes the event interesting is that the pilgrims show their devotion by carrying burdens called “kavadi” on their bodies, which generally include carrying large, heavy decorations on their shoulders and/or attaching small fruits and flowers to their bodies with hooks as they climb the 272 steps to the top of the cave. Others, especially women, carry jugs of milk. Each devotee has an entourage who accompanies him or her on the journey, and those who are especially hard core get a small band who help them get into and stay in a trance.

I gotta say, the whole experience was AWESOME! But I must admit, Thaipusam, for both the devotee and the gawking tourist, is not easy. First, it is hot! Since I work in air conditioning all day long, sometimes I forget how hot Malaysia really is (last time I checked the temperature it was 95°F, “feels like 106°F”), but being out in the open sun in a crowd (plus a sunburn) is a quick reminder that I am only 3° above the equator.

Second, it is crowded! More than a million people came out to the Batu Caves that day and within an hour, I had lost everyone in my 30-person group. At one point, the police were fighting to keep the non-participant crowds from going up the stairs into the caves, and I found myself constantly squished up next tons of sweaty, stinky strangers.

Usually, I hate crowds but for some reason, I actually didn’t mind them during Thaipusam. There was a really exciting energy in the crowds, and though I obviously wasn’t participating, I definitely felt like I was right in the event. At one point, exhausted, sweaty and dehydrated, I decided to head home, but then I found out they had opened up the stairs to the caves to the non-participants. Though part of me wanted to crash, my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to haul my butt up the steps to see what I could find.

All around, people were removing their kavadi and many of the devotees were passed out or lying down with their attendants rushing to cool them down and take care of them. Though all I saw was the actual carrying of the kavadi, these people undergo weeks of purification rituals to prepare, including fasting, where they eat only one simple meal a day. Though I know the act is gruelling, I was still surprised to see how strong of a physical toll it took on some of these people. Many perform it as a form of thanksgiving or penance to Lord Murugan to receive blessings from him, especially if there is an impending crisis like a severely ill family member.  I suppose people can do anything with the right motivation!

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