Thaipusam festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia

Photo: Lord Murugan statue Photo: Young Hindu devotee Photo: Crowded steps Photo: Pierced back

A couple days ago I went to the annual Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Hindu devotees pierce their tongues, faces and bodies with metal skewers and hooks, and carry milk pots, coconuts, fruit and portable altars called kavadi along a 10 km route from the city and finally up 272 steps to the temple inside the cave complex.

(warning: some of these pictures are not for the squeamish)

Malaysia is primarily Muslim, but eight percent of the population (about two million people) is Hindu. This festival, banned in India, attracts over a million pilgrims each year; the estimate I heard for this year was 2.5 million over 3 days.

I arrived early (around 8:30am) on Feb 1 and was prepared for a day of unimaginable crowds and utter chaos, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. From what I have heard, the previous night was worse.

Thousands of men and women with pierced faces and hooks in their skin carried offerings along a procession, as hundreds of thousands of others watched and shouted encouragement. A few thousand men carried kavadi, portable altars made of wood and steel rods, with elaborate decorations; some of the kavadi were huge and must have been very heavy. Most of the men carrying them looked utterly exhausted and would stop to rest every once in a while. Some would occasionally enter into trances and dance and spin around.

Photo: In a trance Photo: Hindu devotees Photo: Yellow heads Photo: Pierced tongue

Each man with a kavadi seemed to have a supporting crew of 5-10 friends and family members who would shout encouragement (usually “vel, vel”), provide water and leg massages during brief stops, help steer them along and make sure the nearby crowd didn’t get impaled on the steel rods sticking out.

The most common form of face piercing I saw was a metal skewer through both cheeks and the tongue. I never saw a drop of blood from any wounds all day; the only blood I saw was a bit pooled on the ground next to a fence, which I suspect resulted from someone getting an elbow in the face during the crazy mob scene trying to get into the temple that was nearby.

It’s pretty amazing how much power the mind has over the body. Before getting pierced, and after a long period of fasting and abstinence before the festival, people enter into trances or otherwise psych themselves up, and when they’re pierced they feel no pain, and don’t bleed.

I wasn’t sure if I should publish pictures from an event like this, because for the participants it’s a deeply personal religious experience, probably the most intense thing they’ll ever go through; when they’re in a trance they do things they wouldn’t in a normal state of mind.

I wouldn’t publish pictures of someone tripping out on drugs at a rave or something, but this seems very different, since it seems to be an intentionally public expression of faith and devotion. Nobody gave any indication that they minded having their picture taken, and many seemed quite happy to pose for photos. Only one guy asked me not to take pictures of his friend who was in a trance, and I was happy to comply.

And I have seen pictures of events like this in the news for years; if Reuters can publish such pictures to millions of people, it must be OK for me to put them on my little Web site.

Photo: Passed out Photo: Pierced back Photo: Thaipusam Photo: Red tongue

It was quite an experience; when I was reading about it afterwards I saw that the Travel Channel has it on their list of 99 things to do before you die. (Actually, it’s “Witness the Thaipusam Festival in Singapore”, but I think this one’s even bigger.)

I found it very easy to navigate around the crowds by myself; I would have hated to have had to coordinate with someone else. I shared a cab there with a German couple from my hostel but as soon as we arrived I politely ditched them so they wouldn’t slow me down.

One thing I missed that I heard about from a local guy I met on the shuttle bus on the way back into town was the the area where they did the piercings and shaved people’s heads, which he said was near a river somewhere. I’m not sure, but I think that must have been at the start of the 10 km procession, back in the city. Would have been cool to have seen that too. That’s what I get for being lazy and taking a cab.

I thought it would be impossible to get transportation back into the city and I’d end up walking back — nope, 60 cents got me a seat on an air-conditioned shuttle bus to the subway line.

More photos from the Thaisupam festival…

(oh yeah, my big zoom lens still sucks. Pics taken with it are consistently soft and hazy. I can glance at a photo thumbnail and instantly tell which lens I used, just based on the quality of the photo. Must figure out what’s going on there.)

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