Thaipusam: the colourful annual celebration in Malaysia
Thaipusam is a colourful annual celebration in honour of the Hindu god Subramanian, with festivities mainly taking place in Batu Caves – a limestone hill with a series of caverns and temples about 13km north of KL. It is a famous festival largely because of the practice of devotees who impale their bodies with long metal skewers during the event.
Celebrated by the city’s Tamil Indian community, Thaipusam is one of the best times to visit Batu Caves. 272 stairs lead to the top and just inside the front door, piles of stone slabs have fashioned out a sort of Norman arch that frames a giant, granite-carved statue of Lord Subramanian. Inside the caves are more exquisitely carved Hindu guardian figures; some statues at Batu Caves, like the four-armed depiction of Prithvi, look deeply peaceful while others (such as the giant, green-skinned Lord Hanuman) are intimidating.
Thaipusam takes place between January and February, with thousands of devotees attending each year. The event is not restricted solely to Hindus – you will see plenty of tourists merrily snapping pictures: in fact, the warmth and hospitality you encounter here will make you want to never go back.
The Thaipusam festivities actually take place over three days. They start out in the wee hours of the morning (04:00) with a procession from Sri Mahamariamman Temple – Kuala Lumpur’s oldest Hindu temple – in Chinatown. Carrying a golden chariot with a statue of Lord Subramanian, it is accompanied by several hundred worshippers and arrives at Batu Caves by noon. This is when the revelry really gets started…
The main event takes place at the base of the hill: once the statue arrives, devotees start preparing to perform ritual acts of thanksgiving or penance. First, priests ‘bathe’ them in the river by the caves, with many of them going into ‘trances’ from the ritualistic prayers. They are then lanced and skewered with metal hooks or spikes – a painless process because of the trance.
Family and friends then guide devotees up the stairs to the main grotto of the caves, where they perform more prayers. Besides impaling themselves, followers also carry giant metal constructions (called kavadis) with offerings such as flowers and milk to the top of the caves. Some kavadis can weigh up to as much as 100 kilos. Once prayers are completed, those with skewers attached to their bodies have them removed and their wounds are treated. The event continues throughout the night and into the next day with many queuing up to carry their kavadis up to the central cavern.
After two days at Batu Caves the procession returns to Sri Mahamariamman Temple with thousands of people walking alongside it and performers keeping morale up with drums beating out a driving rhythm.
Some people like to visit Batu Caves at night during Thaipusam when the crowds are thinner and the air is less humid, but we recommend you stop by during the day, when the atmosphere is more electrifying. This is also the best time for photos, when things are very colourful and busy.
It might rain but the brief bursts will almost certainly do nothing to dampen the spirits of followers as they rush to complete their prayers before the end of the three days. But do take an umbrella, just in case.