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Penang Thaipusam Batu Caves

A Visit to the Batu Caves

Has the era of the Instagramming “culture vulture” impacted Thaipusam’s solemn self-sacrifice?

Last year, we wrote about the different traditions of Penang’s Thaipusam, where smashed coconuts cleanse the way for ornate chariots, and kavadi bearers make their trek to the Waterfall Temple, near the Penang Botanical Gardens. This year, I decided to revisit the Thaipusam procession at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.

Some of my first impressions of Malaysia were formed years ago under the scorching midday sun and intense humidity of Kuala Lumpur, as I followed a tide of processions up into the Batu Caves, during the Tamil holiday of Thaipusam. With the simultaneous Chinese dragon dances and fireworks across town signaling the arrival of the Lunar New Year, that first visit was an introduction to Malaysia’s multi-cultural spirit that I’d never forget.

Thaipusam originated in southern India and spread across south and Southeast Asia, along with the people of the Tamil diaspora. As one of the world’s most unique and spectacular cultural events, Thaipusam still inspires awe at a time when traditional expressions of faith have all but disappeared in many parts of the world. While the shift towards a globalized culture has forced or otherwise encouraged us to assimilate into more homogeneous identities, it would be inaccurate to view traditions like Thaipusam as merely cultural relics. Here in Malaysia--home to the world’s largest Thaipusam celebration, drawing as many as 1.6 million attendees--many traditions have not only survived, but flourished, and are now even proudly promoted as parts of the nation’s unique identity.

Penang Thaipusam Batu Caves Kavadi

Since my first visit to the Batu Caves, I’ve learned about the significance and the meaning of Thaipusam and its rituals--as anyone who wants to attend this kind of sacred event should do. Though open to the public, these colorful, spiritual processions aren’t merely spectacles for touristic consumption. For visitors like myself, it’s important to ask, well, what am I doing here? Thaipusam has an immediate, frenetic energy that will draw you in, but the task is up to us to understand what we are bringing to this spiritual event.  

This year, I’d noticed the crowds were larger, but nothing had changed… The air was still thick with incense, floral fragrance, and the aroma of simmering vegetarian curries, meant to feed devotees en masse. I followed the hypnotic pull of the procession, enveloped by the current of worshippers. As in Penang, barefoot, head-shaved devotees held offerings of milk to Lord Murugan under the sweltering January sun. Unlike Penang however, the many piercing-adorned kavadi-bearers at the Batu Caves carried more delicately constructed peacock-feather shrines, which bounced on springs and hinges as they broke into whirling dances along the path--as if emulating flapping wings. Clearly, many of Thaipusam’s devotional feats demand great strength and stamina; many worshippers have fasted and gone into trances before setting out on this grueling voyage--which is why it’s important to be mindful of your own presence. Getting in the way of a towering, kareening kavadi is dangerous both for the bearer and the observer.

After passing the Murugan statue, the crowd had suddenly bottle-necked, squeezing us all through the narrow arch ways, leading to the newly painted steps where the ascent begins. The pulsating percussion troupes were both the soundtrack and the engine that drove everyone in the crowd onward. The thunderous clap of tightly-tuned drums and the singing of prayers offered a sonic shot of adrenaline, urging the procession upwards.

Penang Batu Caves Thaipusam Kavadi bearers

Once atop the stairs, the crowd streamed into the gaping mouth of the cool and damp caves, with a palpable collective sigh of relief. A colourful, eclectic sea of people spread out ahead of us, filling the entire cavern, flowing in and out of the darkest reaches, and up the stairs back into the light of an adjacent cave. The crowd here forked in two directions: on the left, those bearing milk for Murugan’s shrine, and to the right, the larger kavadi bearers. The kavadi bearers had reached the end of their journey, and it was time for a final dance, before stopping to rest and removing their burdens. As a friend once explained, entranced kavadi bearers are said to be inhabited by deities, and are able to give blessings. Once the spears, piercings, shrines, and other burdens were removed, the trances were broken, causing many participants to shout, tremble, and faint as the visiting spirits left. Surrounded by friends and family, the men and women were tended to with great care, after having undergone such a physically and emotionally intense ordeal. Watching this last part was both touching and a bit uncomfortable--to witness something so spiritually intimate can often feel like cultural voyeurism, when you see unscrupulous tourists snapping close-ups of devotees in such an exhausted, vulnerable state, with high-powered flash bulbs.

The volunteer kavadi assistants were then tasked with carrying the shrines back down the steps of the caves--which is no easy feat, either, and I was rightfully scolded for blocking the stairs while taking a quick photo, like the oblivious tourist I didn’t want to be. It was another reminder to be mindful, and to put the people celebrating the festival ahead of our desire for the perfect Instagram photo.

Whatever your beliefs are, experiencing Thaipusam is a visceral journey that will engage all of your senses and should compel you to learn more about the traditions and the people who keep them alive. If you do choose to observe, remember that this is a sacred event for the Tamil community; our presence shouldn’t distract or hinder, as I saw many gawking tourists with enormous cameras crammed over the shoulders of participants, to get that shot of the kavadi bearer with the most piercings. I’ve had other visitors show me pictures of these so-called “barbaric rituals”, as if they were on a cultural safari, while disparaging the people upon whose solemn spiritual journey they felt entitled to intrude  upon. This year, as we exited, a voice from a crackling PA thanked visitors to Malaysia for attending Thaipusam, part of Malaysia’s proud heritage--and I was reminded that it is a privilege to be welcomed as guests, allowed as observers, or simply tolerated in a space that isn’t ours. Beholding the diversity of human culture is an opportunity worthy of reverence, and we should never take it for granted.

The crowd begins to thicken as it approaches the statue of Lord Murugan, before squeezing tightly through the entrance to the stairs.

The crowd begins to thicken as it approaches the statue of Lord Murugan, before squeezing tightly through the entrance to the stairs.


Written and Photographed by Jeremy, 2019