Getting Hooked on Religion
An inside look at Thaipusam in Malaysia
Ok – just to start off I have to say Holy Cow!!! (Literally… cows are holy with Hindus)… but seriously! C-R-A-Z-Y times!! I’ve been to loads of festivals around the world, and I’d have to say that Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has certainly topped the charts (so far) in terms of the emotions it stirred within. Thaipusam is certainly a festival which openly allows a view deep into a culture’s faith and the extremes they will go to. A very warm thank you to the Indian community in Kuala Lumpur for allowing the likes of Anthony (Man Vs Clock), Johnny (One Step 4ward) and myself to come and be part of their holy event!
I’m not sure if it would be correct in saying that I’ve been fortunate to have never experienced self-mortification before. I have piercings, after all. Perhaps I just felt more sheltered in my own beliefs that somehow this differed from the images I’d seen in National Geographic and the like, of people walking around with hooks in their backs in the name of their God(s). Regardless, seeing it still brought shivers down my spine and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It wasn’t just the hooks and lances that pierced their skin, or the hypnotic trances people fell into, it wasn’t the shaving of the heads, or the random screaming and yelling. It was the culmination of the whole ceremony surrounding Thaipusam that really made the experience so enthralling.
What is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival which is celebrated by the Tamil population. It happens around the full moon of the second Tamil month… usually falling in January by western calendars. It takes on slightly different variations – one of the largest gatherings however is the pilgrimage made in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With well over 1,500,000 people in attendance (that’s right, 1.5 MILLION!) over the course of the weekend, it’s truly a site to behold. I can easily say that regardless of how many tourists ever even find their way here, it will never surmount to even a fraction of the number of faith goers who are participating.
The preparations for the ceremony itself actually begin 48 days prior, with things such as fasting to cleanse the body. Then, on the first day of Thaipusam, there is a large ceremony in a local Hindu temple. It has moved around Kuala Lumpur a few times in it’s history, but for the past several years at the time of this publication, the ceremonies began at Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. People join together and make offerings and pooja (putting the red ink on ones forehead). There was also several rituals involving pouring milk over hindu statues… and lots of it! As the night progresses, tens of thousands of people have already joined in the streets. Free food and water are being handed out at every turn. At the stroke of midnight on the first night, fireworks get let off in the street and music begins. A large procession starts marching with a humungous metallic shrine! Approximately 15 of the holy men from the temple are pulling it on wheels. They will carry it more than 15 kilometers through the night, and into the afternoon, all the way to Batu Caves! Many walk with them the whole way, making stops at each major Hindu temple en route.
The following day, as the temple arrives, is really what most tourists (or travellers.. whatever you prefer to call yourself) are interested in seeing. Faithful devotees carry a Kavadi (physical burden) to the Lord Murugan – the Tamil god of war. They do so as they wish to cleanse themselves of sins and ask for the protection from Lord Murugan. This burden can come in the form of a large container of milk carried on their head. Some build large decorated vessels containing offerings to the Lord Muruga, either by hand or on their shoulders. These kavadi may be simple wooden structures or ornate, heavy ones. Some kavadi rise up to two-three meters in height, and are made of metal frames which hold long skewers, the sharpened end of which pierce the skin of the bearers torso. Some kavadi may weigh as much as a hundred kilograms. Many also pierce their face, tongue and cheeks with spears, representative of when Lord Murugan defeated the evil demon Soorapadman with a spear. We saw several people with hundreds of hooks piercing their backs, attached to ropes and pulling small carts behind them. The motive of Thaipusam festival is to pray to Lord Murugan to receive his grace so that bad traits are deleted. Hooked on religion brings on new meanings here!!
You will see people in states of a trance, there are many rituals being acted out, with holy men blessing those who carried burdens. Lots of falling on the ground in convulsions, and being carried away by others. The culmination of all of this is climbing the 250+ stairs into Batu Caves, where many of the Kavadi are removed, and the burdents
This ceremony goes on from late in the evening of the first full day, after the shrine has arrived, and carries on all through the night, and into the following day, before the shrine starts it’s journey back to the original temple.
This really couldn’t have been any easier. The city of Kuala Lumpur has recognized Thaipusam as being a very important festival, bringing in tens of thousands of visitors to the city. Their Kommuter train runs 24 hours for the whole weekend, shuttling people back and forth from the city centre, all the way to Batu Caves. The journey is about 30-45 mins each way, and only costs 2 Ringits ($0.60 USD) for a return ticket. We went several times – once at 4 am, and another time mid afternoon. Neither journey was unbearably packed, and we obtained seats in each direction. This feels miraculous for a festival with so many in attendance, but I think a big part is due to the regularity of the train’s frequency.
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I’m not sure what was real about Thaipusam, or maybe more accurately… what wasn’t real. It is full on!!! I think the biggest thing to factor in is that this is NOT a circus performance. Thaipusam is a VERY holy festival. The openness is absolutely incredible of the Tamil Hindus who allow visitors to come in and observe their tradition. There were no awkward glances (save for some of those in trances, or sporadically yelling and running around) for us being there. I felt by going at 4 am, we were really the ONLY foreigners we saw there amongst the crowds. By early morning the was certainly more, but it was still sporadic. Hotels reach capacity a week or so in advance often, and even hostels were scarce, so plan in advance with reservations. Bring water – it’s hot there! You can always buy some, but I just like coming prepared… especially if you need it immediately for heat exhaustion. Watch your belongings!! In ANY big crowd around the world, pickpocketing happens. It’s a reality of the world. Keep things in a safe and hidden place on you, or where you can feel if someone is grabbing. You wouldn’t want an incredible experience such as this to be tainted by some petty theft. All food served at Thaipusam is vegetarian as well, as meat is forbidden during this holy time. It’s also all delicious. Just a heads up.
Go with an open mind, and if you’re squeamish, then try to appreciate other elements of Thaipusam other than the hooks and piercings. Talk to the locals as well. Malaysians are INCREDIBLY friendly and approachable, and hold an excellent grasp on the English language. They will tell you anything you like to know (within reason) about what you are experiencing and observing! Enjoy!
Have you ever experienced a religious festival such as Thaipusam, where devotees did exceptional things to show their devotion? What is the largest religious gathering you’ve seen or been a part of? Woud you go to the extremes devotees do at Thaipusam in the name of your own faith?