Batu Caves Thaipusam - Selangor, Malaysia

Once a year, Batu Caves become the centre of a great religious procession. Almost 1 million people pay homage to the highly revered deity, Lord Murugan during the 3-day long festival. Thaipusam falls on the tenth day of the month of Thai in the Hindu Almanac and that would usually be in late January or early February.

The story

A long, long time ago- the world was torn apart by an infernal war between the Devas (celestial beings) and the Asuras (evil forces). Tired of constant attacks from the Asuras, the Devas paid homage to Lord Shiva and asked for his protection. Moved by their plight, Lord Shiva agreed to help the hapless Devas.

Lord Shiva opened the central eye on his forehead, radiating six sparks of fire. At the convergence of these sparks and through a series of celestial transformation, Lord Murugan appeared. He brought forward this powerful divine personality with elements of Himself and yet distinct from Him, powerful and brave enough to defeat the tyrannous Soorapadme - the meanest and most powerful of the Asuras. Armed with a Nyanya Vel (golden spear) presented to him by Lord Shiva, Lord Murugan went into battle with the evil force. A fierce battle ensued. Finally with one fatal stroke, Lord Murugan slayed Soorapadme. The divine converted one portion of the slain enemy into a peacock as his vehicle and the other portion into a cock adorning his banner.

Lord Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva is considered the very manifestation of valour, beauty, youthfulness, vitality, masculinity, valour and the abode of happiness. Thaipusam celebrates the very essence of Lord Murugan and the power of good over evil.

It is 11.30pm on the eve of Thaipusam, a time when the crowd is manageable and the cool night air brings forth a concoction of dizzy, soothing, intoxicating scents to slip us into a mood for a long, invigorating night. (The KTM trains and LRT schedules have been extended to shuttle devotees to Batu Caves to prepare for the day). For others it is to witness the arrival of the silver chariot carrying Lord Murugan heavily adorned with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones. The deity is seated snugly on a bed of flowers encircled by burning incense on the chariot, which is pulled by two garlanded oxen and hundreds of devotees, also accompanied by religious dignities, musicians and dance (kolattam) groups. The silver chariot weighing all of 5 tonnes is transported through a 15km journey from town centre. The entourage leaves the Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown where for most of the year, the chariot and Lord Murugan's idol is housed for safekeeping. The journey takes 8 hours to complete. As the chariot arrives at Batu Caves, devotees carry Lord Murugan's idol up the 272 steps to the temple cave, an ascent of almost 185feet from the base of the steps.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the steps, devotees (and others who have come to earn some income) set up food stalls, fortune telling booths, paraphernalia counters, balloon stands and even shaving tents. One way of doing penance, especially for children is to shave the head (and facial hair for others). There are also other less obvious ways of fulfilling their religious obligations by means of preparing annadanam - food, generally rice and curry for devotees so that they don't go hungry. Or devotees can provide first aid or serve drinks and food and other essential services. The really serious pilgrims go all the way by carrying kavathi. There are a number of reasons as to why devotees would take a kavathi. Some seek to overcome bad karma, some as penance for their sins, and others to honour a vow. Those fulfilling a vow have, in the past asked for help such as birth of a baby, healing the sickness of a loved one, helping them pull through hard times and sometimes to help them through their studies. In return they have proposed to carry the kavathi if the request is fulfilled. There are, of course those who participate only to reaffirm their strength of faith.

We followed a group of students who have come here this year to fulfil their vows to Lord Murugan for having granted them with favourable results in their studies. It is believed that if the vow is not paid, then misfortune will befall the person. We thought it a great idea to follow one group from the start of their journey to the end so that we could learn and witness the entire procession through their eyes for a better understanding. We were told that preparations began long before the day of Thaipusam. Each participant had to physically, mentally and spiritually prepare himself through a 48day fast - eating only one meal a day (strictly vegetarian), conduct prayers at home and at the temple, observe abstinence from carnal pleasures, observing 'mounam'(silence) as far as possible and even endure personal hardships such as sleeping on bare floor. However many do not observe such long periods of purification and the more experienced pilgrims may fast for only seven days or so.

As the noise and sounds of the festival drew us into solidarity with the crowd, the Swami began his chants and prayers. The first student, a young man was put to the test. Swami clasped the devotee's head between his hands, continued his prayer and a flicked of his thumb on the student's forehead, between his brows and wham! The student stumbled back and was helped up by others - his facial expression, his movements, and his cries - transformed. Under a trance, he took on a manifestation of Lord Murugan's persona. Sometimes, even bystanders can fall into a trance and have to be coaxed out of this semi-conscious state by the swami. So be careful, the atmosphere could be so overpowering, It may overcome you!

As the initial trance subsided, it was replaced by a differing state of trance whereby the devotee seemed very aware of his surroundings but was reported to be in a 'form of heightened supercharged awareness'. We found it a little unnerving, watching each go under trance but at the same time we could only watch in admiration of such devotion. Having checked out the entire journey from the riverbank to the shrine - it was by no means a simple feat. Only the strong spirited will be able to complete the pilgrimage. And having seen the 'burden' of which some of them had with them, the task seemed almost impossible to us.

But there they were, all six of them - young, determined, physically fit, mentally alert and spiritually calm.

Once in a trance, trident-like spears, hooks and other sharp objects were skewered into the flesh of the devotee by the swami. The entire scene was almost surreal. The intoxicating scents of incense, the powerful mental and spiritual endurance, witnessing human being's ability to transcend to a different level of being where grisly, abominable self-mortification bears no suffering to the devoted.

For some, the Kavathi ('burdens' in Tamil) was placed on the shoulders of the devotee. The kavathi represents a miniature shrine in which Lord Murugan's idol or a framed painting of his Lord is seated. A jug of milk completes the kavathi. Chains are dropped from the central body of the kavathi and hooked onto the flesh of the bearer. The length of the spears had to be limited to a metre in consideration for other devotees. With almost a million people attending the procession, it would definitely be a grizzly affair if the lances got in the way of a jostling crowd. Others hook limes, oranges or coconuts onto their bodies.

Usually kavathi bearers will have two vels with them, one pierced through the cheeks and the other pushed through the tongue. This has a significant meaning; that the devotee has temporarily renounced the gift of speech so that he may channel his energy upon Lord Murugan and that under His protection, the devotee does not shed a drop of blood nor feel any pain.

Women carried a silver jug full of milk on their heads, some pierced vels through their cheeks and tongues and others not. The kavathi bearers were always accompanied by an entourage of relatives and friends to egg them on with dance parades, songs, musicians playing the melam(drum) and the natheswaram(flute) and the chants of 'vel,vel, vetri vel' - the symbol of the golden spear used to defeat the evil forces. The young men in the entourage formed a protective barrier round the kavathi bearers and the ones preceding the bearer engaged in dance rituals known as the 'kavathi dance', reflecting Lord Murugan's role as Lord of the Dance.

As they arrive at the shrine, the milk was poured over the golden vel and the kavathi lifted off the bearer. The Swami removed the miniature spears (vels), hooks etc, sprinkled holy ash on the slight nicks on the skin and the bearer was brought out of his trance. The vow was finally fulfilled. Faces of elation and relief all round, including bystanders like us. Feeling with them and for them through the 2 hour ordeal was indeed intense to say the least and watching them at the end of it all - their devotion, their spiritual accomplishment and the solidarity of the group and beyond has won our admiration. In spite of what we perceive as a gruesome demonstration of bodily mortification and sometimes to extremities, Thaipusam is what it is and will always be-a celebration of life, of spiritual attainment, of good presiding over evil and of Lord Murugan - the emancipator.

Thaipusam is celebrated at various sites in Peninsular Malaysia, namely;

1. Kuala Lumpur

At Batu Caves, procession starts on the eve of Thaipusam from the Sri Mariamman Temple in the town centre all the way to Batu Caves, 15km from city centre. Most activities happen at Batu Caves, so just get yourself to the caves if you're not into filming the entire procession for your home video collection.

2. Penang

Procession starts on the eve of Thaipusam from the Chettiar Temple in Penang Street where the silver chariot leaves on a journey to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple at Waterfall Road. You may want to skip Penang Street and head for the Sivan Temple at Dato Kramat Road where ablutions are performed, and trances and piercing of body are conducted.

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