Blimey! I’d known about Thaipusam for well over a year and had seen Ian’s photographs from last year but never in a million years had I expected it to be like this.
This Hindu festival falls in late January or early February every year and takes place at the Batu Caves just outside KL. Despite having lived here for eighteen months now, and the caves being the number one thing to do here, I had not got round to a trip over there to see the giant gold statue that marks the entrance to the temples high up in a mountainside cave.
Living in such a multi-cultural country, we are delighted to get loads of days off for every religion’s holy days. We have Hari Raya after Ramadan, Deepavali before Christmas, Christmas, then Thaipusam and Chinese New Year in a week or two.
My parents left at 7.30 am for their flight home and so Ian and I headed for the caves as soon as we’d waved them off in their taxi. I thought it was the crack of dawn, but Ian assured me we were in grave danger of missing the procession. I could tell he was disgruntled as we walked over to KL Sentral station to catch the Komuter train. But I knew we’d be alright the moment I stepped onto the train and failed to get a seat. Come on. If people, Indian people who knew about these things, were going over at this time of the morning, we’d be bound not to have missed anything. I was right. The moment we got off the train the noise of drums hit me like a wall; like when you stand right in front of the speakers at a rock concert. It hurt my ears, piercing my eardrums so I had to put my hand over my tinnitus ear. There were thousands and thousands of people. Hindus dressed in their best, glitteriest clothes and pilgrims dressed in yellow loincloths or simple Punjabi outfits.
Around midnight the night before thousands of worshippers had gathered at the Sri Mahamariamman temple in the city, garlanded their hair with jasmine and joined troops of barefooted devotees to walk the eight hours or so to the caves. Many carry pots of milk upon their heads, others carry kavadis, which are physical burdens, often multi-tiered and decorated with peacock feathers and images of gods. These burdens represent the debt bondage to the gods and are carried by worshippers who prepare for the ceremony with 48 days of semi-fasting, worship and celibacy. As Thaipusam celebrates the birth of the Tamil god of war, Murugan, these offerings implore Murugan for help. Many devotees pierce their tongues with spears, usually through the cheeks too, in order to prevent them from speaking and as a constant reminder of Lord Murugan while giving them great power of endurance. Others penitents cover their backs with hooks and hang bells, miniature milk-pails or fresh limes. These wounds never seem to bleed, due, it is said, to the power of the gods.
Apparently 1.6 million were there today, with us, marveling at the arrival of the devotees, who walk, dance, sing, drum, stamp their feet, ankles ringing with hundreds of tiny bells, smoke huge reefers and act in trancelike states (often carrying brass bowls of lighted coals aloft) as they move towards the temple that lies at the top of 272 steps inside the cave. Many shave their heads, men, women and children too, and paint them with a yellow sandalwood paste. Others cover their bodies in grey-white consecrated ash. Following the procession we found ourselves inadvertently in the queue of people heading up the steps and into the temple within the cave. There were bodies ten or twenty deep on either side of me and hundreds if not thousands deep before and behind. We were pressed against each other. Mothers carried their babies on their shoulders, retainers guided the kavadi bearers and as the crowd seethed I was carried forward. I had to hang onto Ian or we’d have been separated in a flash. I was not happy. What if one of the devotees carrying flaming coals set fire to someone’s shalwar kameez? What if something happened and there was a sudden surge? How could we get out? It may have been our one chance a year to experience the caves in all their craziest and livliest glory, but I was prepared to fight my way to the edge, climb the barrier and escape. Ian stood firm and kept moving forwards. I knew that if I lost him I’d never get him to hear his phone in this deluge of sound, so sheeplike, mute and meek (and a tad grumpy) I followed him. I knew he was right, but still…
Luckily the day was still cloudy despite it being about 10.30 am and the heat was bearable. I seemed to find myself in front of a lady with a large backpack (or was it her bosom?) whose front ‘appendage’ stubbonly knocked me off my feet, tilting me forwards with every step she took. I had to keep my back braced in order not to topple over and drown in the crowd. It was hard work just staying upright.
The closer we got to the steps the louder the music and announcements became, occasionally interspersed with the theme tune from Star Wars. A blissfully cool draft kept on wafting by and, looking up, I saw that vast fans were spraying us with cold water. We must have been in the boiling mass of devotees for at least an hour before we found the first step. This was heralded by a sea of flip flops and empty water bottles as many discarded both before stooping to touch the bottom step and begin the ascent. The steps were painted alternately red and white, colours apparently adopted to signify this as a holy place. They were scarcely the depth of my foot. For much of the time I had to place my feet sideways as I climbed.
“No pain!” announced an Indian lady beside me. “All these steps but no paining. The Gods take it away.” She shook her head from side to side knowingly and grinned. As my thighs burned from the exertion I realised no visitor to Thaipusam can escape a certain degree of endurance.
But we were going to plough on. 17 shallow steps then a small landing for a second or two of respite before 17 more and on it went. Shoals of primary-coloured worshippers flowed above and below us, creating a stream that began high up at the cave mouth and ran down the steps, through the crowd and to the streets. I had to admit, it was a spectacle in a million.
The closer we got to the cave, the more new smells were added to the already heady mix of jasmine flowers, the many chrysanthemums used for garlands, gently broiling flesh, minty incense and souring milk. Oranges and the residue of thousands of fast food meals, carried by many in plastic carriers to the top and then discarded formed a tideline of debris at the base of every step or pillar or just plonked where they fell. The cave’s permanent resident monkeys, chickens and pigeons feasted happily on their best picnic of the year.
The cave was vast and filled with deities, temples and shrines, skeins of flowers and ribbons of Hindus waiting to offer prayers or receive a blessing or holy mark with ash swiped across their brows.
Families sat in huddles on pieces of old newspaper and sang together. Everyone smiled. Many caught our eyes and shared their joy. And so we shuffled by in a kind of insane conga as groups snailspaced the circumference of the cave with their hands on the shoulders of those in front of them.
In the six hours or so that had passed since we left home there had been no chance to sit down. Not one. And as the sun and the too-close proximity of bodies increased we were desperate to sit somewhere, anywhere, but the kerbs were piled high with peel and plastic and if we’d tried to sit on the road we’d surely have been trampled in a flash. But our ears and hearts were singing as we joined the crush of thousands pushing for the trains home.
It was not until we reached home that we could flop gratefully onto the sofa. I ached from head to toe for 24 hours but the onslaught of sounds, sights and smells continue to fill my head with pure gold.