I wasn’t planning spending so long in Kuala Lumpur but when I heard that Malaysia’s biggest Hindu festival was kicking off I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see cool stuff! Self mutilation through multiple body piercings in devotion to one of their gods? Yes please.
I went twice to Batu Caves where over one million Malay Indians and other visitors come together to celebrate Thaipusam every year. The first time a taxi driver had told me the best time to go was the night before the main day (Tuesday 3rd) so off I went with my lovely Canadian friends and we were overwhelmed by the crowd, the noise, the smells and true to form, Hindu devotees expressing their faith and seeking penance from the deity Lord Murugan through outrageous 30kg floats (kavadis) attached to their bodies, body piercings, shaved heads and silver bowls of milk, honey or sandalwood carried atop their heads up the 272 steps to the biggest Hindu shrine outside of India. Many of the locals actually start their celebrations at the Hindu temple Sri Maha Mariamann which was 200m from my hostel in China Town. They walk 15km from there carrying a lit up silver chariot all the way to Batu Caves as a further sign of their piety.
The second time I went was on the official day of Thaipusam to seek even greater sights of religious devotion. It was worth going back to see the festivities in full swing by daylight. The whole place was packed and covered with market stalls selling all sorts of Indian food and clothing with traditional music booming from every corner.
I was lucky to be in Malaysia for this significant date in the Hindu calendar. It was truly impressive. However I was told by a local Indian Malay staying in my hostel that the event used to be even more extreme five years ago, but now it’s become more controlled and politicised. It was certainly a commercial event; big names and companies were there for promotional gain. He also told me that he personally doesn’t like going anymore for this reason and that he finds it too difficult with the crowds to connect spiritually with the deity. I asked him if he ever thinks that the people who pull out all the stops with their kavadis and piercings ever do it just to show off and he said: “Girl, you hit the nail on the head”.