Experiencing a Thaipusam Festival

Story and photos By Elena Dubas

I had been in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia for three days, and finally it was January 30, 2007. This year the Thaipusam Festival would begin at midnight, on January 31st. I had been planning my trip since October and it was the only reason I had come to KL, which is said to be celebrated the biggest here. My thesis exhibit for graduate school is a video and photography project on body modification and practices, such as suspension and scarification. I came to see this festival and to take photographs but also to experience it and to have a greater understanding of rituals in other cultures.
I stayed in a hostel in Chinatown, so I would not be far from where the festival begins each year. The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple was a few blocks away and is where the Silver Chariot bearing the statue of Lord Murugan begins its journey at midnight each year to go to Batu Caves, 13 kilometers away in the suburbs of KL.
January 30th – 11:00pm
I approached the street going to the temple and saw so many people that I could not continue further and was swallowed up by the crowd as I tried, to no avail, to get closer. I started talking to a young woman from Malaysia and her two friends, both from India, who now work in KL. They were going to walk "with" the chariot. In actuality, they were going to pass it, because the chariot stops along the way and would not get to the temple until the afternoon. They asked if I was going to walk too. I said yes without hesitation. I felt it was only right if I was going to take photographs while people were going for prayer and faith, I should walk with them.
January 31st – 12:20am
The chariot began moving, inch-by-inch, towards its destination. The slow moving chariot started as a surge of people began their procession to Batu Caves. I walked the whole time with my three new friends. The woman, who had walked before (this was her fifth year) answered any questions I had and they all kept watch over me, making sure I was ok and with them. I had many smiles as I passed countless other people walking—men, women, children, young, old, weak, strong—and two women told me how they appreciated that I was walking with them, as I did not have to. It was tiring. I do not know when my feet and legs began to ache. But then I looked at people around me, who were walking barefoot or carrying pots filled with milk on their heads for an offering, and I realized I had no right to complain. It looked like one of those movie scenes where people are fleeing because of a meteor or some other disaster, but there wasn't panic, just a slow, steady pace with a common goal.
We arrived at Batu Caves, and walked through the massive entrance to the site of the caves. We sat on the ground, resting our tired feet and watched those who had reached the final destination earlier walking the 272 steps to the top of the cave, and the constant flow of people entering after us. Soon we also climbed the steps to the entrance of the cave, which houses several shrines and the main temple, Sri Subramaniam Swamy Temple. The coolness of the caves felt refreshing, and as I looked up I saw light starting to appear through the openings of the cave above me. Inside, people were receiving blessings from priests and having their offerings blessed. I saw the two women who had approached me while walking and we gave a smile and touch on the shoulder—a warm recognition.
I returned back to the hotel. I was exhausted, but had an amazing feeling. Though I did not take the best photos because I was walking for 99% of the time, it did not matter to me. It was about the experience.
February 1st – 7:00am
The next morning I went back to the caves so I could see the many offerings being made to the god, Lord Murugan. It was amazing to see. I could feel how important it was for everyone at this festival, regardless if they were carrying a simple kavadi in an arch made out of wood on their shoulders, a pot with milk on their head, shaved their hair off, or bore a towering kavadi strapped to their waist that was lavishly decorated with peacock feathers, brightly colored tinsel, and images of Hindu deities. Their belief in this god and how much faith they have that I not only saw, but could feel, was amazing. Those that had skewers in their face or had been pierced and had tiny rings or oranges or even coconuts hanging from the hooks were in a deep trance. Dancing to the beat of drums in front and behind them or listening to the chants yelled by their friends and family. But there were also times of rest and a stool would be ready for them to sit on.
Everyone I came across did not mind being photographed, though I thought some foreigners I saw (there were many) went too far sometimes to get a photo...shoving their camera in a devotee's face. I took lots of photographs and video, but I tried to be respectful and ask permission if I could, by holding my camera up to them and seeing if they nodded or smiled. This is something very spiritual for them—it was only right.
There were so many people and it was so hot, it took me awhile to make it to the river that was a short distance from where the caves are. This is where the devotees cleanse themselves, before they make their way to the caves to give their offerings, regardless of what their offering is. Also, it is where they are pierced through the cheek or tongue with a skewer, or several hooks are put in their back with metal rings, limes, oranges or coconuts hanging from them.
As I approached the river, I came to a group of men, women, and children surrounding a middle aged man with his palms facing upward, his eyes closed, and turning a spear over and over in his hand. I listened to the repetitive chants, of what sounded like one word, "Vel," which means spear. Another man, who seemed to be a priest, was at his side, hands clasped together. They were preparing this man to be pierced and bringing him into a trance, so he would feel no pain. The sounds all around me had such a rhythm and the voices were so powerful, that as I listened, my lips parted and I began to join in and say the words as best as I could. I forgot about my camera and I was caught up in the spirit and purpose of my surroundings. The man began to rock back and forth, his feet moving in tune to the voices around him, and brought his arms up to the sky. The voices rose and a woman at his side began another chant in a higher melodic pitch over the other voices, but not overpowering them. The woman's words seemed to become the question and the group around her answered by shouting, "Vel! Vel!". As the voices became louder, the priest bent down and took incense and a white powder that was on top of newsprint on the ground that also had pots of milk to be carried, bananas, and coconuts, among other things. The voices became even louder, the atmosphere intense with the expectation of things to come. As the group and crowd of others nearby, drew in closer, my view of the man became blocked, so I focused on the woman who had been chanting over the other voices. She was shouting the words, "Vel! Vel!" Her eyes were closed but if opened, I felt she would have been looking upward to the sky. Her palms were together prayer like and pressed to her lips, as tears rolled down her face. I looked back to the man, and he was now pierced through his tongue with a long skewer. He bent down and picked up a bowl filled with the white powder, dipped his fingers in, and went to what I guess to be his family, and spread it across their foreheads.
After, they would start to walk to the cave, which was difficult due to the many people also offering something for Lord Murugan or those standing to watch. Everyone pierced and/or carrying a kavadi was in a deep trance, some screaming, not from pain, but I think from something stronger they felt inside. Several people had ropes, instead of fruit, attached to hooks in their back and held by another person. The person holding the ropes restrained the devotee who kept walking to move forward – regardless of who or what was in font of them. Yet they pulled and pushed forward, until the person holding the ropes moved forward with them.
When I made my way to where the steps to the top of the caves are it felt like there were more people because it was such a confined area. I even had the breath squeezed out of me a couple of times when people started pushing to go forward, even though there was no place to go! But it was worth it. As I climbed the steps, I tried to imagine the strength (physical and spiritual) of the people who bore a kavadi had. As I reached the cave and the coolness it offered, I approached the temple and saw as those with piercing and skewers stopped and had them removed.
February 2nd – 2:00pm
I went back to the caves to see the chariot make its way back to the temple in Chinatown. It was crowded but there were not as many people as when it made its way to the caves. Still, there were many people, with offerings of incense, flowers and coconuts making their way to the chariot and having them blessed by the priest. There were some handing babies to the person atop the chariot to hold in front of the priest! Around 5:00pm, I went back to the main part of KL, because I was told the chariot would not reach Chinatown until 12:30am.
February 3rd – 3:30am
It turned out to be much later before the chariot returned to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, where it started. The chariot arrived and everyone who was there went to meet it on the road and walk behind it for about a block before it stopped in front of the temple. After, music played in the street and it was a celebration. The statue of Lord Murugan was brought into the temple. Everyone followed and filled the temple. Several priests standing in front said prayers, while six musicians played the drums, oboes and some other instruments I did not recognize. It was so loud and had such a beat, it became all that was in my mind.

I returned back to my hotel room one last time for my festival experience. Thaipusam was worth extending my trip for. The experiences I had and the things I felt and seen will always stay with me.

Note from Kavadinfo
Thanks Elena, for sharing this experience.
Like to see more photos from Elena go here.


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