Thaipusam at the Batu Caves, Malaysia

I attended Thaipusam over a year ago, but my experience isn’t something I’ve felt comfortable sharing with many people till now. The event is an annual religious holiday celebrated by Hindus in honor of Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan), who is known to embody virtue, youth, and power, and is the destroyer of evil. 

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Before writing this post. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share very much about Thaipusam. How would I feel, I wondered, if someone took photo after photo of a deeply personal ritual of mine? However, I realized upon reflection that the nature of Thaipusam actually involves spectacle. Its very design epitomizes outward expression, and the hordes of onlookers speak to its value as a shared, communal experience. These points are better articulated by a stroll through the event, which I’ve tried to capture in the photos below. Here are a few impressions that stuck with me most:

Vendors like this guy are really common. The atmosphere is like a carnival—the ground is littered with people selling balloons, lights, and every manner of food/drink is available for purchase under tents.

Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Other vendors sell gorgeous flowers strung on necklaces (below). This was the first time I’d encountered these in southeast Asia and I never quite got over their beauty.

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Displays like the one below are kavadis, or burdens. They’re hoisted into the air by participants and carried in processionals towards the Batu Caves.

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The Batu Caves themselves are tall and imposing, and take on an even more regal, mystical air as the sun goes down.

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As you can see, participants and onlookers run the gamut.

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Priot to Thaipusam, festival participants deny themselves a number of sensory pleasures (many are celibate, and many adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet, or fast). They shave their heads right before the festival, and show their devotion through self-mortification, namely by piercing themselves with metal skewers. The milk jars carried above the head (seen below) are another type of kavadi.

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It wasn’t at all uncommon for parents to be seen hoisting children high above their heads to expose them to everything happening.

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I left Thaipusam around 9 PM, which is a QUITE a tame hour. I had friends who stayed all night long, and if you’re feeling so inclined I’d encouraged you to take the chance and try it. Malaysia’s Batu Caves are easily accessible from the train if you’re in Kuala Lumpur, and they’re worth a visit even if it’s not Thaipusam season.

xox E

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