The Thaipusam Festival is one of the largest and most extravagant Hindu festivals in Asia celebrated by millions of followers worldwide. Every year, the event takes place on the night of the full moon in January-February, in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar.
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 mesmerised onlookers who desperately try to capture the scenes on camera.
The preparations for Thaipusam actually begin 48 days before the event, where devotees will begin cleansing by fasting, prayers and taking a vow of celibacy, not eating meat or cutting their hair. On the day of the celebration the head is shaved and smeared with orange paste. Cheeks and tongues are pierced with vels, to signify the spear given to Murugan by his mother. They also prevent talking and are another sign of devotion. By renouncing the ability to talk the devotee can focus all their energies on the deity.
There is a carnival like atmosphere around resembling more of a party even with the self mortification of the devotees. Bands and drummers will walk in the procession attached to a devotee carrying a Kadavi. If he is weak, or losing is his will to continue the band sing and play frantic music to re-energise the devotee. Often they will raise from their slumber and dance around on the spot as a reflection of Murugan, the lord of the dance. Devotees attach hooks to their backs and carry fruit, often limes or oranges as a sign of faith to the deity. Others will go much further by pulling structures by ropes attached their backs with hooks.
Devotees who carry kadavis will have a team of people all doing their part to help him get to the caves. There will be people who flank him to stop him falling over when he is weak, or to stop him going off course when he is dancing. One person will carry a stool for when he is tired and they will massage his feet and legs as he has walked for 15 kilometres by this point with up to 100 kilos of weight attached to him. Others will carry water and fruit for him before they all climb the 272 steps to the caves together. The will all chant and encourage him on his pilgrimage. Devotees also break coconuts as a symbol of submission to God.
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.
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.