Getting Hooked on Religion
An inside look at Thaipusam in Malaysia
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 takes on slight variations depending on where it’s occurring – 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.
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 burdens are absolved.
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.
To view loads of photos from each day, I’ve created separate photo essays for each:
View Where Sidewalks End in a larger map
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
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!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
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?