Friday 16 November 2018

Profound Devotion: The Festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia

This article from my first visit to Malaysia appeared in The West Australian newspaper in 2009, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by Tourism Malaysia.

The sensual immersion is incredible.

Sight: thousands of devotees walking in procession toward the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sound: Insistent drumming, mixed with amplified Tamil-language music.

Smell: Smoke from incense and tobacco drifting through the air.

The Batu Caves sit within a rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the flat land surrounding it. It’s an impressive craggy mass, but more impressive yet is the crowd heading toward it to commemorate the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

I’ve arrived here before dawn to avoid the heavy traffic that will envelop the site once the sun rises; but even at 6am the road that leads to the caves is thronging with people.

Weaving my way slowly through the crowd, I find myself on the path of the pilgrims walking to the shrine located high up within the caves. Past me trickle lines of men and women in orange robes, carrying pots of milk on their heads.

Then men appear bearing huge decorated frames resting on their shoulders - colourful canopies decked out with feathers, tassels and statues of the Hindu god Murugan.

These kavadi are extraordinarily elaborate; one even has a mobile generator connected to lights upon its exterior, being pushed along by a friend of the devotee beneath it.

And Murugan is the focus of this spiritual event, a god particularly revered by Malaysia’s Tamil community. Every year during Thaipusam, they carry milk to his shrine, or bear a decorated kavadi as a greater offering. Some devotees are thanking the god for a past prayer that has been answered; others are hoping for help in the year ahead.

Although Thaipusam originated in India and is still celebrated there, the Batu Caves celebration is one of the most spectacular, with up to a million devotees making the journey up the stairs set into the spectacular mountain that houses the deity’s shrine.

The devotees are watched by tens of thousands of spectators, and there’s a carnival atmosphere among the diverse stalls and tents lining the route, selling everything from spiritual memorabilia to mobile phone plans.

The generosity of the day is also called upon by charities, including a mobile blood donation centre among the stalls.

The most striking act of devotion is the piercing of the skin by skewers, inserted through the tongue or cheeks. Some even have hooks inserted through the skin on their backs, held taut by supporters walking behind them.

The degree of pain represents the worshipper’s devotion to the god, though those with spikes through their flesh are often coaxed into a trance state which lessens the impact of the pain.

It’s intriguing to watch the faces of those in a trance - one man with hooks in his back is rolling his eyes and tongue dreamily as a holy man speaks to him, walking backwards ahead of the devotee. For someone from a completely different cultural background, immersed within the crowd, the sight is overwhelming and fascinating at the same time.

As I’m moving along with the masses, following the generator-lit kavadi and taking photos, I pause next to a group of young men who are dancing to the incessant beat of the music which accompanies the procession. One of them peels away to shake my hand and ask me where I’m from.

“What do you think of all this?” he asks, eyes sparkling, as he bounces on the ground with enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing!” I reply, quite truthfully - I’m feeling unexpectedly awed by the sensory overload. Satisfied, he shakes my hand again and rejoins his friends.

The loud music keeps playing, and as I wait to reinsert myself within the procession, my left foot starts tapping out an involuntary little dance.

My new acquaintance notices this and points it out to a friend, and they both laugh. It’s a good-natured chuckle, in keeping with the joyous mood of the occasion.

Along the way I chat with several more onlookers, and supporters of the devotees. The supporters accompany their friends and family members, and ensure their safety if they should be overcome by their burdens on their way to the shrine.

It’s an inclusive, energetic event, completely lacking the solemnity I associate with Western religions, and people are enthused by the all-encompassing sounds, sights and crowds. There’s something intensely stimulating about the controlled chaos of the procession, a ritualised abandonment of daily routines and inhibitions.

By the time we reach the foot of the 272 steps which lead up to the shrine, dawn is breaking. I peel off, walking past a vast mound of coconuts to find a seat at a refreshment stall.

Sitting with an iced tea, I watch the growing stream of pilgrims move onward and upwards, past the enormous statue of Murugan that towers alongside the steps.

Music is playing loudly, smoke is billowing from a nearby shrine, and a flock of birds is flying across the sky above the crowd.

It’s an invigorating atmosphere: a potent blend of aroma, sound, colour, motion and human vibrancy that reaches deeper than the rational mind, intensely moving in both its passion and the good humour of the crowds which have come to share in it.

Thaipusam takes place upon the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February each year). Thaipusam will provisionally fall on 21 January in 2019.

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