We stayed in Kuala Lumpur long enough to attend the Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves. Thaipusam is an annual Hindu festival that takes place all around Southeast Asia. Batu Caves is said to be one of the biggest gatherings, so since we were in the area we knew we had to go! A million people traveled to the Batu Caves on Wednesday, January 31st.
It is actually a three-day festival, but the height of the festivities were on this day. The train ride from KL out to the caves was jam-packed. We were shoulder to shoulder. In fact, some people had to raise their arms to make more room. I was in the midst of dozens of people, I didn’t even need a hand hold during the ride. There was no way I was falling! Luckily there was air-conditioning on the train, yet I still sweat bullets.
I didn’t know what to expect from the festival. I knew that Hindus attended to pay respect and bring offerings to Lord Murugan. There would be a large procession from the base of the caves up to the shrine built inside for Lord Murugan where they would bring their gift and say a prayer. All that was true. Additionally, it was like a fair! There were fried food stands, a ferris wheel, rollercoaster, juice stands, stalls selling CDs and handbags, and a large covered tent devoted to women’s fashion. There were stands selling pots and pans and dozens of jewelry shops. If there wasn’t a 30 meter high statue of a Hindu god in the background, you’d think you were at the State Fair (the crowds and heat included).
When we got to the procession, though, I was silenced. Men were carrying large shrines attached to their bodies with fish hooks. They started their procession 15 kilometers earlier and were now arriving at the base of the caves. A group of other men processed around the carriers with water and food. Every few minutes or so they would stop and rest. Sometimes there would be drummers and the men would dance.
There were bells attached to what they were wearing and they jingled with the drums to form an absorbing sound.
Some of these men were in trances. You could tell which ones because their eyes would be glazed over and they weren’t saying anything. Some of the men had long spears pierced through both cheeks.
There were piles of shoes everywhere as people slipped them off before entering the Batu Caves.
We joined in the long, packed crowd heading up the steep stairwell to the caves.
I’m glad we opted to keep our shoes on because the deeper we trekked into the caves the filthier it got. The caves drip water constantly and there was a lot of trash littered in huge piles around the caves. Once inside, there were many offerings of flowers piled about.
The men who carried the shrines were finally able to take them off once inside the caves. Their helpers started treating their wounds.
The rest of the crowd continued on deeper into the caves to pray inside the temple devoted to Lord Murugan.
We gazed at the caves for a short time, but overall I felt a little uncomfortable being there. The praying was intense, and some people still seemed in a trance. Then again in the corners there were groups of people just hanging out, smoking, sleeping, and laughing. Tourists were snapping pictures all over. We left the caves after a short time, and then left the festival completely. The hot, humid weather, the crowds, and the culture shock were enough after two hours. I was beat, but absolutely thrilled to have witnessed such an event.
Notice the welts formed on his back from the hooks.