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Thaipusam in KL

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Also in Malaysia:
Kuala Lumpur

Thaipusam is an annual celebration in honor of the Hindu god Subramanian. In order to win favor with the god and ensure their good fortune, worshippers take elaborate sacrificial measures, ranging from simple offerings of milk and flowers, to impaling themselves with long metal skewers and carrying giant metal constructions up the 272 stairs into Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. It's a huge event, with thousands of participants and close to 2 million onlookers.

I had wanted to see this for many years but never before managed to work out the timing. I'm happy to say that after all the waiting, I was not in the least disappointed. In fact, thanks in large part to the many devotees and priests who took time to explain to me what was going on, I ended up experiencing something much more significant and multidimensional than just an esoteric religious spectacle. I'm usually a bit shy about intruding on other people's religious events, and it was touching to be made to feel so welcome.

Practical matters: It was a bit difficult to find good information about the schedule of the events online, so I am posting what I know in hopes that it will be useful to others in the coming years.

The festivities last for about three days, beginning with the procession of a chariot containing a statue of Lord Murugan from Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown out to Batu Caves. After two days at Batu Caves, the statue comes back to the temple.

In 2005, the official day of Thaipusam was January 25 (Tuesday). The chariot left around 4am Sunday night (really Monday morning), accompanied by several hundred worshippers, and arrived at Batu Caves around noon on Monday.

Once the statue arrived, people started going to the river at Batu Caves where they were prepared by priests for their sacrifices. They bathed (in showers meant to symbolize the river, which is too polluted these days) and were brought into a trance, whereupon they can apparently be lanced and skewered without feeling pain. Their friends and family guided them up the stairs and into the caves while drums beat out a driving rhythm.

This continued all night Monday the 24th and into the next day. The first night was really the best time to be there, because the weather is cooler and the crowds of onlookers are less dense than during the day. I would recommend arriving around midnight (Monday night in this case) and staying until sunrise, when the light will improve and you can take some photos.

On Tuesday the processions continued. Normally, I was told, they finish by sundown, but this year there were still hours worth of kavadis queued up when I left at 9pm.

Early Wednesday morning (the 26th), the chariot left Batu Caves and went as far as a Hindu temple in the Sentul neighborhood, where the chariot-bearers rested until sundown. Then the march resumed, following Jalan Ipoh, Jalan Raja Laut, Jalan Dang Wangi, Jalan Tun Perak, Jalan Pudu, and finally Jalan Tun H.S. Lee to the temple, where it arrived around 3am. It is very slow going, stopping every hundred meters or so to receive offerings from worshippers in the neighborhoods it passes through. A thousand or so people walked along with it, as well as several bands of drummers and other performers. Every few hundred meters, various groups were handing out free food and drinks.

As a visitor, you are welcome to participate in the processions of the chariot, to wander around the grounds of Batu Caves, to enter the cave itself, and to receive gifts of food and drink. You should take care not to obstruct the path of the entranced pilgrims or to walk into temples with your shoes on. Also, be aware of crowd control instructions from police. If they say "Jalan!" that means "keep moving!"

There are many restaurants at Batu Caves, and they will all be open all night during the holiday period. Only vegetarian food is served. There are also many groups handing out free food, which you are welcome to take (they are doing it as a spiritual obligation, and indeed seemed extra-excited about getting me, clearly a non-Hindu foreigner, to have some). After reading an quote in the newspaper where temple officials asked groups to make sure the free food was "fit for human consumption" for a change this year, I opted out of everything but sweets and drinks, and instead had some great stuff at the restaurants (during Thaipusam they mostly offer fixed menus for about RM2 / US$0.50).

During Thaipusam, buses run between the city and Batu Caves around the clock, leaving every few minutes. The bus starts at the stand near the Pasar Seni LRT station (around the back of the Sri Mahamariamman Temple) and costs RM2. Look for a paper sign in the front window that says "Batu Caves" or "Thaipusam".

And enjoy the photos.

Crowded cave Young pierced girl Waiting his turn Relief at last
Milk offering Fire carrier Temple in the cave Tugging at the hooks
Whirling devotee Waiting to climb No stopping him Young pilgrim
Prayer before the walk The littlest drummer The ultimate sacrifice The happiest drummer
Family preparations Determination Hooks close-up Back down from the caves
Making the ascent Trance behavior Corrective footwear Skewered
Human peacock Pure focus Indian sweets Crowds streaming through the gates
Peacock feather kavadis The coconut smash Lord Murugan's chariot The stick dance
Lord Murugan statue Hanging plants Frenetic activity inside the caves Conferring blessings
All decked up Double-decker drumming Giving away food Pipes on wheels
The chariot passes through Chinatown Would you bathe in this water? Duet Modern bathing
Banana offering Starting the journey The only clean place to nap No place else to sit
Tiny shopkeeper Thaipusam train Chair of nails Presiding over the ascent
Now which were my shoes again? Jammed up stairs Inside the caves at last After the trance
A whole lot of coconuts

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