Thaipusam: The World’s Largest Hindu Pilgrimage
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Thaipusam: The World’s Largest Hindu Pilgrimage

How exactly do I explain Thaipusam.

You know when you’re at the indian buffet and you usually get all the same shit? “Well, I know I like the chicken tikka masala…so I’ma do that again…lots of that, yeah. And I like the naan, because you can’t go wrong with bread..oh, and one of these potato pouches. Potatoes are bang.”

But, adventure is calling, so you’re like “Yeah girl, switch it up a little, take a walk on the wild side. Try some of the yellow.” Now, when you’re about to put strange new stuff in your mouth, you don’t load the whole plate up with crazy. No, you ease into those uncharted eats. Chill, just get like half a scoop.

Thaipusam wasn’t half a scoop of Hinduism.

The Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves was like the whole buffet, on one plate, with no utensils.

Let’s first have a qucik history lesson. What we’re talking about is a massive Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil people to honor Lord Murugan. He’s the Hindu god of war and the son of Shiva. This whole thing exists to pay tribute to when the Goddess Parvati gave her son Murugan a magical spear (called a vel) embodying all of her powers so he could slay a nasty demon named Soorapadman.  Murugan was all slay all day and took out pretty much all of Soorapadman’s soldiers. Demon-man lost his army, his weapons, his brother, and even his son Paanugopan. But Soorapadma was hard AF so just won’t back down. Instead, he tries to pull a fast one over on our hero and turns himself into a big mango tree. Really tho? The mango tree is the oldest trick in the book. Murugan wasn’t falling for that shit, so in the end he used the sacred spear and gave him the chop. Paul Bundy realness. When the demon-tree split in half, one half transformed into a peacock, and the other half into a rooster. Murugan, continuing with his wrath of badassery, turns half-peacock-Soorapadma into his vahana (a pet peacock-mobile) and turns Cockadoodle-Soorapadman into his flag.

Murugan slicing the mango tree and turning Soopradman into a rooster and a peacock
This is a depiction of the mango tree incident taken from astroulagam.com

And that’s why 1.5 million devotees make this pilgrimage to Batu Caves. All hail the God of War.  Preserver of Good. Destroyer of Mango-Tree-Demons.

The celebrations last an entire weekend, with many beginning in downtown Kuala Lumpur for an opening ceremony at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple. When the clock strikes midnight, commence the crazy in the streets. Music, chanting, motherfuckin’ bootleg fireworks! At the head of the cortege, a handful of holy men begin pulling a huge chariot; and they’ll pull it all thru the night for over 15 kilometers, all the way to Batu Caves, like glorious Hindu Clydesdales.

As much fun as that sounds, I slept in and opted to take the train to the caves the following morning. From Kuala Lumpur’s city center, the train goes directly to Batu Caves. It literally couldn’t be any easier. The ride cost 2RM (50 cents) one way or 4RM ($1) for a return trip, its a 36 minute ride, and the trains run 24 hours a day during the festivities. I left around 10am, and while it was crowded, the ride wasn’t uncomfortable.

When I got off the train, that’s when I realized this was all a little bit different that I thought it was going to be. I don’t exactly know what I was expecting; I’d never really been to giant religious gathering before. Eh, I guess that’s a lie. I was in Philly scalping tickets to the Papal mass and there was about 150,000 hard-Christians there. But 150,000 Fundies isn’t really in the same boat as 1.5 million Hindus throwing themselves into full blown trance. This was a first for me. Never seen this before.

A pierced Thaipusam devotee in trance at Batu Caves, Malaysia
This devotee was completely tranced out. His cheeks are pierced with a vel. The vel is capped with citrus fruit to offer to Murugan. When you looked into his eyes you could tell the lights were on but no one was home. Temporarily on a different plane on consciousness, bbl.

I remember years ago, my friend Vicky went to Las Vegas and saw one of those hypnotist shows on the strip. It turns out Vicky was the lucky rando that got chosen to be in the act and she SWORE up & down that the dude really hypnotized her. Swore it. I never bought it, I said “Vicky, that’s a crock of shit, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.” If hypnotism was the real deal, roofies would be extinct by now.

But you know what, these Hindus just threw a monkey wrench into my hypnoskeptics because this was the real deal. These people were in 100% trance, full throttle, Shiva take the wheel.

Men in trance at Thaipusam Festival in Batu Caves, Malaysia
I think this man was blessing the other one, but I’m not sure because I thought a blessing would look more gentle

The entire thing is a complete sensory overload. The banging of the drums is so intense that I actually had to remove myself from the lined streets of the procession to give my brain some downtime. To me, the drumming is completely overbearing, but to the devotees it seemed to be the rhythmic element that propelled their brains into trance. It’s difficult to describe the intensity but it actually stirs your senses; you can feel the beat of the drums pulsating thru your body. After being submersed in the sound for a while, I can say my body felt like it was actually reverberating from my core, like a gong. Shamans actually have a name for the whole concept of transcendence activated thru sound, they call it auditory driving, and you can read about it here.

 

Woman dances to drums at Thaipusam

The visual stimulus was even more astounding than the noise. I don’t know if I’ve ever been somewhere so crowded. It was like being tossed into that very last page of Where’s Waldo when he lost his shoe. The sea of devotees was so harmonious, yet everyone had their own way of displaying their gratitude and devotion to Lord Murugan. They each undertake their own penance by performing ceremonial sacrifices called ‘Kavadi,’ hoping this will rid them their own personal demons that stand in the way of their own happiness.

A woman rolling a devotee through the streets as he takes Kavadi at Thaipusam festival
The crowds parted ahead of me as this woman rolled a tranced man thru the trash filled streets towards the steps of Batu Caves as he prayed. His family followed behind him the whole way. I walked along side him for a good while and I never saw him open his eyes.

The physical kavadi (“burden”) of the devotees bear range in intensity. Many fasted for days. Many walked barefoot from over 15 kilometers away. One of the more modest burdens was to shave your head as a plea to Murugan; a symbol of purification. Little gold-headed children were running around in every direction; their freshly shaved heads rubbed with tumeric to prevent itching and infection.

A baby gets his head shaved as a plea to Lord Murugan
A baby gets his head shaved as an offering to Lord Murugan

Others balanced heavy brass jugs of milk on their heads to represent the burdens they carry for themselves and their families.

Women at Thaipusam carrying milk atop their heads to symbolize the burdens they carry for themselves and their familes
These women are all carrying milk atop their heads on the way to Batu Caves. Most of them carry the milk with both hands at all times, never letting their arms rest until they reach the caves where they give the milk as an offering at the temple.

 

A Hindu devotee balancing milk on his head to offer to Lord Murugan at Thaipusam
Most everyone in the procession wore yellow, as yellow was Lord Murugan’s favorite color

Devotee carries milk pot on head at Thaipusam

Devotee carries milk pot on head at Thaipusam

Then we level up to the devotees that pierce their flesh and tongues with symbolic vels, inflicting pain for God. Their tongues and cheeks are pierced to help them bremain silent and stay in their meditative state.

A devotee walks the procession to Batu Caves pierced with a vel
A devotee walks the procession to Batu Caves pierced with a vel. By the time he got to me towards the end of the procession, you could tell he was struggling. A couple different men helped hold him up as he walked.

 

A female devotee pierced with vel and dressed in neem leaves
It was much more rare to see women bearing piercings, this act of devotion was seemingly reserved for men

Some go beyond the face skewers, and pierce their entire bodies full of tiny hooks. From the hooks, dangled offerings to Lord Murugan. The most common danglers seemed to be citrus fruits like limes.

A devotee pierced with many hooks full of offerings for Lord Murugan

And somehow, even with all this, the penances just got more incredible. Entranced men danced thru the procession balancing huge kadavis atop their shoulders. They were enormous ornately tiered structures, elaborately decorated with peacock feathers, flowers, and imagery of their Gods. They almost reminded me of Mummers Day floats, except they were somehow supported by just one single person. I was told that these kadavis can weigh up to 100 pounds. Wut? How? Just how?  Yet, these men have been carrying them through life’s most sensory-overloaded 3-mile procession route, in 100 degree heat. And not even struggling with them or anything. But spinning and dancing!! They perform the kavadi attam, also known as the “burden dance” as a ceremonial sacrifice. It is truly remarkable, the amount of physical and mental energy required to do this would almost seem superhuman.

A Hindu devotee dances with a heavy Kadavi balanced atop his shoulders
A Hindu devotee dances with a heavy Kadavi made from steel, wood, peacock feathers, flowers, and tassels balanced atop his shoulders. The mudra he symbols is “ardhapataka ,” used to free oneself of negativity.

 

A young boy bears the weight of a giant kadavi at Thaipusam
This was one of the youngest boys I saw bearing the weight of a kavadi structure.

For as physically and mentally demanding of a task this is, the devotees show no traces of pain. For carrying 70+ pounds on their shoulders for miles, there is no wincing. Though they are pierced and chained to these structures, there is no blood. No scarring.

A man stops for a rest under the weight of his giant Kavadi

Man carrying kavadi on his shoudlers at Thaipusam

I wasn’t behind the barricades at the procession, I jumped into the procession so I could best capture the action. As the heavy fabrications bounced above their heads, their faces wore no signs of struggle. Even though I was right in front of them, their eyes looked off into the far distance, as if they were on a different plane of consciousness. Because these devotees were so entranced, I actually felt less guilty about being such an invasive photographer. They seemed completely unfazed by me and the pulsing crowd, so I didn’t feel like a bother getting up close and personal. I felt fashionably chic in my invisibility cloak , and as a documentary photographer, I loved it that way.

A holy cow pulling a chariot thru the streets at Thaipusam
I was loving being right in the action until someone grabbed me screaming in another language, and I turned around and saw this.

Being in the splash zone was great right up until I turned around and realized I was about to experience death-by-sacred-cow. Looking back, I’m happy I snapped this photo before being bulldozed by bovine, but holy cow am I stupid.

The sea of yellow continued behind the cow-driven chariots, where pious men and women shared blessings with other participants. A bunch were crowding this woman, hoping they’d be the next one chosen to be graced with vibhuti. This sacred white ash is applied in three horizontal lines across the forehead to honor Shiva.

A pious devotee blessing other participants on the forehead with white ash at Thaipusam

 

A hindu man considered to be an "avatar" that could channel the powers of the gods

Some of the men there had huge crowds around them, with masses of devotees congregating for blessings. I was told that these few were accepted by their devotees as avatars, meaning they were seen as an incarnation of the Divine and could channel the power of the Gods.

I had almost reached the base of Batu Caves, where 272 concrete steps led to the temple’s entrance. I watched as the same men that were spinning and dancing in the streets, climb barefoot up these 272 steps STILL wearing their Kavadis.

Devotees climbing the 272 steps to the temple at Batu Caves
Here you can see people walking up the left side of the steps, down the right side, and the devotees still wearing their kadavis featuring the faces of the Gods going up the center

The closer you got to the steps, the more the energy intensified. The drumming was louder and faster. There were two holy men having a really deep prayer dance-off type thing. It was like kind of like a b-boy battle but spiritual I guess.

Then there was this guy who was one of the outliers on the ‘extremist’ end of of the charts. I’ve only seen stuff like this when I went to Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. This guy had big hooks in his back, and had another guy standing behind him just TUGGING. And the hooked guy almost seemed euphoric about it. He couldn’t get enough of it. He was hooked. heh-heh.

Hindu at Thaipusam gets pulled by ropes attached to large hooks in his back

Devotee with large hooks thru his back performing kavadi at Thaipusam
From this angle, you can see just how many onlookers there are. It seemed like for every one of the 1.5 million devotees, there was one person standing with a camera. I didn’t like that at all, but who am I to say that, because I’m one of them. For as many cameras as there were, these people were not performing. In fact, for some of them, I’d doubt they even knew we were there.
Hindu at Thaipusam gets pulled by ropes attached to large hooks in his back
A look from the perspective of the man doing the pulling

I crouched right beneath him to capture this photo, which is one of my favorite images from the whole set.

A Hindu in a state of trance as he pulls a chariot Kadavi

I chose come back the following day to climb the steps to the temple in Batu Caves. My brain and body were at capacity. I feel like a puss saying that because, you know,  everyone else was wearing 100 pound sculptures on their backs, walking on shoes made of nails, and had skewers thru their faces. But I was dehydrated and hot, and it was loud, damnit.

The takeaway I got from this was actually really interesting. This is considered one of the most extreme events in all the world. 99% of onlookers would be flabbergasted at everything they were witnessing. But what was fascinating to me, was I had seen this all before – but in a totally contrary context. Back home in Philadelphia, I’ve got a bunch of friends who do the whole body suspension thing. They have meetups where they go to the park and have a picnic, stick hooks thru their backs and suspend themselves from trees like a little community of pinatas.

I worked the music festival scene for 6 years; I’ve seen plenty of people in a metaphysical music-induced trance, but it was because they were ketamine zombies. Or because they dropped LSD into their eyeballs.

So, the thing that I found the most compelling was that these seemingly similar circumstances existed in such a sacred setting. It was hard to wrap my head around the contrasting parallels of a warehouse rave and a holy cave.I felt like I’d only ever been exposed to hollowed renditions of these hallowed practices.

 


 

So When is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam takes place on the day of the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai. This date will change each year since the event is based  on a lunar calendar, however, the festival will always occur in either January or February of each year.

  • 2017: February 9
  • 2018: January 31
  • 2019: January 21

TLDR:

Cost: Free to attend, 4RM ($1) round trip train ticket from Kuala Lumpur’s city center

Tips: Pack water and stay hydrated, it’s likely going to be over 100 degrees and you’re going to be sardined . Pack your own food if you don’t like deep fried snackie things. Earplugs would probably be beneficial. Have an emergency meeting spot planned out in case you lose someone you came with. Bring your camera, this is a photographer’s dream. Avoid this event if you have claustrophobia, just don’t do it. I know plenty of people who would have lost their shit in the mobscene that was trying to catch the train home. My feet were literally off the ground at some points, I was just getting shoved towards the train in a baitball of Hindu people. If you can handle full-fledged sardine circumstances, you’ll be all good.

 

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  1. carol Jovi

    I love your website…..such interesting stories and experiences….

    April 11, 2018 Reply

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Welcome to the adventures & misadventures of a solo female traveler. Detailed itineraries, fresh discoveries, photo recaps, and all the storytime so you can live vicariously thru my journals as I weasel my way across the world.

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