Monday, January 28, 2013

Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Prior to Saturday night we knew that Thaipusam attracted throngs of people to the Batu Caves and that some devotees carried large structures, had stakes in their bodies, and pierced their checks and tongues. Because of the reported crowds we avoided going last year, but recently a taxi driver urged us to go and stand on the sides. Based on his recommendation, we signed up with the American Association of Malaysia for a tour to Batu Caves on the eve of Thaipusam. We assumed that that the tour would keep us from being consumed by the crowds. Not so. But what we lost in peaceful meandering we gained in knowledge. Rag, our tour guide, explained the festival and guaranteed that we didn't merely observe colorful and strange rituals. We understood what we were seeing.

Worshipers gathering at the riverbank

Showers are provided as the river is no longer clean
Decorations are held by hooks inserted into the body
A worshiper is prepared

Estimates of the number devotees and spectators vary, but they exceed well over a million. The local train (KTM) ran continuous service for 4 days and expected 500,000 riders. When we arrived, people were everywhere. But no chance of being squeezed and trampled. Devotees were busy carrying out their own rituals at their own pace. Spectators lined up along the long route from the river to the temple. With continuous streams of devotees carrying kavadis,which ranged from pots of milk to large wooden structures, there was no focal point where crowds surged.

Giving a blessing

Walking to the stairway to Batu Caves

A pose

Thaipusam is in honor of Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati. During the year devotees may have made vows to Lord Murugan, e.g., they may promise to carry a kavadi if a child is born or if the have good fortune in their business, and so forth. On Thaipusam the rituals fulfill the vows. A kavadi, a burden,  may be a pot of milk. It may be a cloth cradle with a baby inside, which is carried on sugar cane stalks. The baby may have been born after entreaties to Lord Murugan.  Conversely, if a family member died in the past year, immediate family members do not participate in or attend Thaipusam festivities. (Lesson from the taxi driver who drove us home.)

A Kavidi
A God Prepared for Transport
Women carrying pots of milk

A man carrying a pot of milk on his head

As we approached Batu Caves we heard incessant drumming. It is to put the large kavadi bearers and other devotees into a trance. Some devotees may pierce their checks and tongues and put hooks on their bodies. The hooks may be attached to large kavadis, fruits, and other ornamentation are attached to the hooks. Prior to Thaipusam the devotees would have followed a period of fasting (up to 48 days). While fasting they eat only a vegetarian dinner usually water and fruits. Rag said that some of the men would gather in the local temples once or twice a week, drumming and going into trances. His comment was that they usually do not have happy lives and that the trances give them hope.

The Stairway to Batu Caves on left, Lord Murtha on right

Our first stop at Batu Caves was by the Klang River. Traditionally devotees would do ablutions in the river, but the Klang is polluted. Most devotees took advantage of the showers. In the area around the river devotees prepared to carry their kavidis to the temple. After watching the preparations we entered the temple grounds. For a while we stood and watched devotees go by. This is the best and easiest time to take pictures. We then decided to climb the 272 steps into the cave - despite my statement a year ago that I had no intention of repeating the climb ever again. At the bottom of the steps was a collection of shoes, but I decided against a barefoot climb. Not only would the climb been more challenging I don't know how I would have found my shoes again. Climbing the steps was easier at night, but by the time I reached the top I had lost my motivation to check out the final stages of the rituals. Actually the number of people serves to discourage intrusion more than fatigue.

A female participant

Thaipusam is a religious festival, but along the way there were food stalls, snack stands, business displays, retirement planning services, and even a match maker. Although we were getting hungry and the food looked inviting, logistics led us to go back to the bus. We eager to make the LRT that ends service at midnight. Otherwise we might be stuck negotiating with a taxi driver. Drivers in the downtown area don't like using the meter and ask ridiculous fares. Plus fares go up by 50% after midnight.

A officer from the Red Crescent to provide emergency medical assistance.
The Prudential was here to sell insurance and retirement plans.

A local political party had a presence

A few detailed descriptions A reporter decribes his preparations to carry a kavidi (includes link to video)  ("Healing, Sacred Vows, and Trances" puts the rituals in context.)

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