By Ben Allison
I recently embarked on a vacation with my family to Malaysia and Singapore during the uni break. My trip fell over the 14th to the 26th of January, starting in Kuala Lumpur and ending in Singapore.
During this time, unbeknownst to us, the annual Thaipusam festival took place.
Thaipusam is a thanksgiving of sorts to the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan. It falls on the full moon of the tenth month of the Hindu calendar, which happened to be on the 17th of January this year.
One night while walking back from the Petaling Street Chinese night markets, my family and I were astounded to stumble across literally thousands of people all walking through the street.
It felt claustrophobic being in a space with that many people walking past.
Other tourists looked on in confusion wondering where these people, many of whom were barefoot, were going.
We later found out that it was the night before Thaipusam and we had unknowingly witnessed a portion of the 15 kilometre journey that many devotees embark on for the festival.
Each year, millions of devotees walk the long distance from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of the city of Kuala Lumpur, all the way to the Batu Caves. This year it was estimated that 1.5 million people would arrive at the Batu Caves for the festival.
The Batu Caves are a Hindu place of worship located in the Gombak district and are one of the most popular locations for Thaipusam, which is celebrated across the globe.
The first thing you notice when you reach the caves is the 42.7 metre gold statue of Lord Murugan that stands at the bottom of the 272 stone steps leading up into the caves.
Many devotees that participate in the procession bear kavadi (offerings) to Lord Murugan, which can weigh up to 70kg. These kavadi need to be carried the full distance of the trek, as well as up the 272 steps to the top of the Batu Caves.
I thought of the devotees as I climbed the steps days after the festival. The steps are very steep and if I was struggling in the humid heat, I couldn’t even imagine bearing a 70kg offering as well.
As well as offering kavadi, devotees often perform physical acts – including piercing the skin with metal skewers or fishing hooks – to show their gratitude to Lord Murugan.
Devotees who carry out these physical acts claim that they do not feel any pain and interestingly shed no blood while doing so.
As well as being host to Thaipusam, the Batu Caves are an extremely popular tourist destination. The caves are listed number five in TIME Magazine’s ‘Ten Things To Do’ in Kuala Lumpur.
Once you make the steep climb up the steps to the cave, you are greeted by very cute, yet equally frightening Cynomolgus monkeys that will feed on anything and everything you have to give. The monkeys have obviously learnt that tourists can be extremely generous.
Despite greedy monkeys, the Batu Caves really are worth seeing and I would urge anyone travelling to Kuala Lumpur to visit them.