Reading Raymond Wells’ article on Malaysia (Solo in Kuala Lumpur) brought back fond memories. I, too, feel that Batu Caves are a must-see. The number of visitors contrast from one period to another. Steps leading to the caves are empty for most of the year, then for a few days each January or February, thousands and thousands of Hindus gather to celebrate the religious festival of Thaipusam.
The festival is open to anyone interested. Each day celebrations begin at three or four in the morning and continue until late in the evening. Small market stalls line the main street and square, where almost everything can be bought or sold. You can even get a haircut. For visitors, it is a memorable spectacle, to say the least.
From communities throughout Malaysia, devotees come to thank their deity for blessings received or prayers answered during the year. They may have prayed for improved health or for a bountiful crop, or they may be fulfilling some vow or penance. Some go so far as to submit themselves to extreme body piercing. After undergoing purification ceremonies at a nearby river, they go into a hypnotic trance before having their tongues, brows, and cheeks pierced with skewers. Limes and jars of coconut milk are hooked all over their bodies. This spectacular and engrossing sight is absolutely awe inspiring. We even saw a visitor fall into a trance while watching. Besides having hooks and skewers penetrating their flesh, penitents shoulder heavy wooden or steel kavadis, which may be either simply or ornately decorated with layers of feathers and flowers.
I saw one man with a huge skewer penetrating both cheeks from which two hens were suspended in slings. He also had many limes hooked onto his back and legs. On his feet he wore sandals with nails piercing up into his feet. Ouch! Walk slowly.
Processions of kavadi bearers, their followers, along with curious visitors, proceed from the river. The smell of smoke fills the air as visitors and devotees toss small cubes of solid paraffin on fires at the foot of the stairs when they begin their ascent. At the top of the steps, in the main cave, priests relieve them of their skewers and burdens.
Thaipusam is a day of consecration to the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan, sometimes also called Lord Subramaniam. A feature of the festival is the carrying of a kavadi, a frame decorated with colored papers, tinsels, fresh flowers and fruits as a form of penance.
In Kuala Lumpur, Hindus make the annual pilgrimage to the Batu Caves in Selangor, where the kavadi is carried up the 272 steps to the entrance of the great cave and deposited at the feet of the deity. On the eve of Thaipusam, the grounds of Batu Caves are transformed into a fairyland of lights. Kavadi carrying begins after sunset. Some devotees and penitents have entered a trance and pierced their tongues, or foreheads. The next day they will return to their ordinary lives, cleansed.
Observers of the kavadi do not have to participate in this ritual unless they really, really want to. Apart from the mortification of flesh, other forms of devotion are practiced, such as honey or milk offerings.
Information: Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, New York.