The Thaipusam Festival is one of the largest and most extravagant Hindu festivals in Asia celebrated by millions of followers worlwide. Every year, the event takes place on the night of the full moon in January-February, in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. In 2011, Thaipusam Festival is held on 20th January.
The festival is held in honour of Lord Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam, son of Shiva and Parvati. During the festival devotees offer penance to the powerful Lord. They say thank you for a bestowment of good fortune during the previous year and pray for protection and happiness in the future.
For onlookers, the festival is an incredible spectacle to witness as participants perform incredible feats of devotion. Feats including the piercing the body and face with skewers, dragging chariots with hooks attached to the skin and the carrying of huge metal frames (known as kavadis) attached to the body. Some devotees become entranced, entering meditative states during the procession, believed to purge them of their sins. Fasting and cleansing beforehand is a necessary preparation.
Thaipusam at The Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:
The Batu Caves in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most significant places in which the festival is commemorated. Each year, this particular event attracts over one million devotees and thousands of spectators from all over the world. The proceedings begin at midnight at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the heart of the city and finish at the sacred site of the Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Devotees participate in the march which takes over eight hours and covers around 15km.
The procession consists of a constant flow of vigorous bodies. Bodies carrying the huge contraptions, kavadis, inserted with metal spikes into their sides, bodies upon which fruit and flowers hangs with hooks pierced through the skin, bodies impaled with spears, bodies constantly spinning, dancing and moving trance-like back and forth amidst the throng. Helpers try endlessly to hold the devotees up and stop them falling into the mesmerized onlookers who desperately try to capture the scenes on camera.
Devotees working themselves into a ‘trance’ at the Thaipusam Festival
Hooks attached to devotee’s backs at Thaipusam
Close up of the hooks in the back of a festival participant
This elaborately dressed devotee is actually stood on a sword at the Thaipusam Festival
Piercings of the face during Thaipusam Festival
Once at the site of the Batu Caves, the crowd continues up the 272 steps to reach the cave mouth. It is here where people gave final penance to Lord Murugan. The singing, dancing and drumming grows to a crescendo as devotees near the entrance of the cave that is lined with hundreds of smashed coconuts. The heat and intensity is exhausting even at the early hour of 6am. Tinny music fills the air and babies cry as they hang from fabric cradles carried on bamboo sticks, a demonstration to say thank you for the blessing of a child in the previous year.
Smashed coconuts and offerings at the entrance to The Batu Caves
Parents say thank you for a child in the previous year. For baby, it’s all a bit too overwhelming!
Inside the Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur
One devotee takes a rest while wearing a heavy ‘Kavadi’ (metal frame) at the Thaipusam Festival
As spectators and participators mingle, not one of the devotees notice the presence of the tourists as they remain incredibly entranced in their duties. To witness such a demonstration of the power and fervency of religious faith is a truly amazing experience to behold.
To reach the caves via wheels, spectators can take a bus from the main Bus Terminal in KL, which takes about an hour.