Thaipusam is one of those festivals that I have seen photos/documentaries about but never thought I would experience – but all of a sudden I found myself is Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for business during this is a Hindu festival. The festival is celebrated mostly by the Tamil community around the world and the festival normally ends with a procession to a temple. But the preparation can be long for those that are really dedicated as it includes more than 40 days of fasting, trying to focus only on God, sleeping on a mat in the temple, goes into celibacy etc. In Kuala Lumpur (or KL) in Malaysia the festival ends in a procession from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of the city to Batu Caves located about 15 kilometers out of town – and it ends with a steep climb up 272 steps to the temple there. To understand the photos it is also important to understand that on the day of the festival the devotees will shave their heads (and get some sort of golden painting on their heads) and undertake this pilgrimage while they engage in various acts of devotion. The people carry various types of what is known as kavadi (which means burdens). The simplest kavadi is a pot of milk but there are some that take this even further and they pierce the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers and they carry huge constructions. You can read more about the Thaipusam festival on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam
Thaipusam was celebrated on February 7th of 2012 and I took the train to Batu Caves as lots of the roads are blocked due to the procession. But luckily the KTM Komuter train goes from KL Sentral station and stops right at the Batu caves. When I boarded the rather small train at KL Sentral it was easy to see where this was leading – the train cars were totally packed and I just managed to squeeze in before the doors closed behind me. In advance I has asked Malaysian acquaintances about Thaipusam at Batu Caves and most replied that it included too many people, that it was way too crowded, too hot etc. The train to Batu Caves was only like 2 Ringgit (70 US Cent) and it takes maybe 30 minutes. When getting out of the station, I was basically in the middle of it all. There were people serving food so there was a scent of cooking in the air, music was blasting from loudspeakers all over the place, people were selling books and there was even a couple of rides there (like a ferris wheel). But the main thing is of course the procession that ends here so I made my way over to the steep stairs leading up to Batu caves while I was holding on to my belongs as there had been a bit of talking about pickpockets during the festival. I moved close in on the procession to try to get some nice photos but unfortunately my digital SLR camera stopped working on me so I had to stick to my small Canon IXUS camera. I guess I got a bit too close to the procession as all of a sudden I was in the stream of people and I was “dragged” towards the steps leading up to the Batu caves. It was fascinating to see some of the people carrying their HUGE kavadis. Each of them seemed to have a team of helpers who provided them with a stool to sit on, some water to drink and that shouted words of encouragement. Many of the people had piercings through their cheeks and tongues, some had hooks in the backs with apples or small bells and some even had larger hooks in the back and with ropes they were held back. The steps leading up to Batu caves were totally packed and I’m glad that people stayed calm as it could have been ugly if people had started panic for one reason or another. I walked up the steps slowly as I wanted to take pictures on the way and because it was 30-35 degrees Celsius so I was actually soaking wet of sweat after a few hours.
Inside the cave itself there were lots and lots of people and I guess this marks the end of the march. I just looked around there for a while and as it was pretty packed it was hard to move around. I don’t envy the people that had to clean up the area after the festival as there was trash everywhere. Going down also took a bit of time as it was packed but it seemed like they controlled which of the three “lanes” in the steps that were leading up and which was leading down. When I came down there were still lots of people lining up to start the climb to the caves and the procession leading to the area seemed to be never ending. Seeing this festival with my own eyes was a real treat so if you are in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia during thaipusam you should not miss out on a visit to Batu caves. Yes, it is crowded and it is hot – but it is totally worth it.
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