The Indian worshiper’s body twisted within a circle of supporters, as the oranges and flowers hanging from his pierced back bobbed in frenzy. The peacock feathers of his kavadi, an ornately tiered structure, flopped above his head and his bulging eyes stared into the distance, seemingly on a different plane of consciousness from the surging crowd. As his pace slowed he heaved forward, kavadi, oranges and all, towards the 272 steps he must soon climb barefoot to reach the cave’s Hindu temple.
The man was one of many celebrating Thaipusam; all were devotees of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war and son of the god Shiva. About 40 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, over 1.5 million Hindus gather annually at the base of Batu Caves, a limestone hill containing one of Malaysia’s oldest Hindu temples. Mostly of Tamil origin, these Hindus honor the day Sri Maha Mariamman passed down a demon-slaying spear to her son, Lord Murugan, and pay tribute for the prayers he answered.
The largest gathering of Thaipusam in the world officially begins in downtown Kuala Lumpur at the oldest Hindu temple in the city, Sri Mahamariamman. From the temple, people pull a massive silver chariot containing statues of Lord Murugan and his two consorts, Valli and Deivanai, in an eight-mile procession to the caves. With frequent stops on the route for Hindus to pay homage to Lord Murugan and his consorts, the procession last year started at midnight and arrived at Batu Caves at 3pm. Smashed coconuts dotted the streets, as Hindus symbolically broke their hard exterior egos to reveal their pure souls to their gods.
The Hindu festival starts on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, usually falling in late January or early February, and lasts three days. Hindus make offerings to Lord Murugan in different ways. Barefooted children carry small metal urns of milk to be poured on the idol of Lord Murugan. A middle-aged woman climbs up the 272 cave steps on her knees. Families pierce their bodies and tongues with hooks and metal skewers. A young couple ascends the steps with their newborn child between them, having created a mobile cradle out of a white cloth and a 5-foot wooden pole.
There is also a service element to the festival, with many Hindu organizations operating free food stalls around the caves or donating kavadi to impoverished worshipers striving to fulfill their vows. Ravindran Varnagopal, who heads one of these charities, credits Lord Murugan for saving his life. “In 2012… I was hospitalized and on my deathbed. [My] family members sought refuge with Lord Murugan to take care of his ardent devotee… and 48 days later I was healed,” Ravindran said.
Those who carry a kavadi adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, recite special prayers, maintain celibacy, and often fast, sometimes for weeks prior to the ceremonies. Some also enter drug-induced spiritual trances. As some Malaysian Hindus pointed out, many of the more dramatic displays of penance are recent additions to the festival and “not rooted in Hindu scripture”, such as the wearing of a tiered, 35kg kavadi instead of a modest single-arched kavadi, the cacophony of large drum and song circles, and the trances themselves. Older Hindu participants offered various explanations for these “new” practices, ranging from efforts to increase youth participation to religious ignorance, and to some elders, a perversion of traditional Thaipusam practices.
Near the limestone hill, mounds of hair piled up next to makeshift barber-stands as community members shaved the heads of men, women and children and then covered their heads in a cooling paste of yellow sandalwood. A highway exit ramp, shut down for the worshipers, concealed a muddy riverside where the men, and sometimes women, showered before getting hooked to their kavadi, while close by, women prepared silver pots of milk, or paal kodam, to bring to the cave temple.
During the piercing process, devotees shed little to no blood and showed minimal pain. Two men, whose skin arched from their backs as the hooks strained against dozens of ropes and chains, even shook in ecstasy, lost in a spiritual trance.
Many participants, clothed in Lord Murugan’s yellow and orange colors, also draped green neem leaves over their outfits or on their paal kodam. “Neem leaves are sacred in Hinduism as they represent the Goddess Parashakti, Mother of the universe,” said Shalini Mahalingam, a high school teacher who travels five hours each year to celebrate with her family at the caves. “We believe that she will protect us along the way to fulfill our vows. The leaves also have medicinal value,” Shalini added.
Closer to the cave steps, a jovial carnival, complete with a merry-go-round, musical performances, and holy cows meandering through the food tents, was in stark contrast with the intense acts of atonement nearby. Peppered throughout the sea of participants were the kavadi-bearing worshippers, who made their way slowly towards the cave entrance, often supported by as many as a dozen drummers and chanting family members. The worshipers occasionally paused to rest, smoke a trance “enhancer”, or adjust the scaffolding of the kavadi. In their vulnerable state, they depended on their families to clear a path through the crowd.
The throng of people was so large at some points that non-worshipers were refused entrance at the base of the hill staircase. At the top of the steps, people entered a giant two-chambered cavern flooded with artificial light. Inside, fenced-off lines directed worshipers to a small temple at the far left corner of the cave where they could perform abhiseka by giving their milk and fruit offerings to the idol of Lord Murugan.
In other parts of the cave, people discarded smaller kavadi and family members unhooked the larger kavadi from their seated carriers. Jasmine and neem leaves covered parts of the cave floor and men who had demonstrated their piety proceeded to give blessings to other participants, pressing red powder and vibhuti, a sacred white ash, onto their foreheads. According to one Hindu participant, the men who had undergone such a sacrifice had temporarily become “avatar”, and could channel the power of the gods. In the adjoining second chamber, worshippers entered another Hindu temple for blessings and burned offerings in small fires within the chamber.
As the festival extended into the night and worshipers continued to flock to the temple steps, hundreds of people slept on mats around the limestone hill — many crowded next to the steps under the protective gaze of the 140 foot-tall golden statue of Lord Murugan, proudly carrying the spear his mother had given him on that auspicious day in Hinduism so long ago.