Imagine trying to describe the smell of a fresh-cut rose or the taste of a superb French meal–words alone cannot do it justice. This is the problem writing about Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Lord Subramaniam. The holiday is observed throughout the Hindu world but nowhere with more exuberance than Kuala Lumpur. About 1.5 million people attend the day-long festivities, which occur in late January or early February. Everyone is welcome to join in although, because of the huge throngs, you may wish to reconsider if you have enochlophobia–fear of crowds.
The celebration lasts 24 hours but due to the heat and humidity most tourists attend at night when the weather is less oppressive. My wife and I boarded a bus at 11:30 PM for our trip to the Batu Caves, the site of the festival, about 8 miles from the city center. Because of the crowds the trip takes over an hour, and we must walk the last half-mile as the vehicle can’t navigate the throngs of revelers, penitents, and sightseers. As we step off the bus everyone’s reaction is identical: “What in God’s name did I get myself into!” There are people everywhere, deafening music, strange smells, loud chanting, lights, noise, fireworks–a combination state fair, tent revival meeting, and hard rock mosh pit. One man likens it to Dante’s seventh ring of Hell. The driver wishes us good luck and reminds us the bus returns at 5:00 AM sharp so leave enough time for the Herculean effort that will be required to get back to the parking lot.
Thaipusam is a time for the devout to cleanse themselves of sin. Pilgrims wash themselves in the nearby river and cut off their hair at one of the dozens of “barber shops” lining the walkway to the festival. The newly shaven head is then smeared with sandalwood, a pale yellow powder holy to Hindus.
After the ritual bath and haircut the penitents put themselves into a trance-like state. Through prayer, as well as rhythmic music, drumming, and chanting, they become hypnotic, almost catatonic, and unconsciously bump into people around them. Once entranced they are pierced with skewers, knives, and other sharp objects–mostly through their cheeks and lips. More intense participants put hooks through the skin on their stomach, tie them to ropes, and drag a ceremonial chariot, called a kavadi, using only their flesh. The kavadi is a wooden frame carrying incense, fruit, feathers, milk, honey, and other gifts for Lord Subramaniam. The penitent drags this chariot through the madding crowd screaming and chanting prayers, all the while helped along by friends should he fall down or faint from exhaustion, ecstasy, or pain. Within the site are tens of thousands of worshippers, hundreds of thousands of helpers/musicians/dancers, and countless sightseers, touts, vendors, and assorted hangers-on taking in the multitudinous sounds, sights, and smells. There is also a carnival area where thousands of vendors set up stalls selling food and Hindu “tchotkes,” such as sandalwood and incense, while fortune tellers are offering to predict your future.
The place where pilgrims bring their gifts, Cathedral Cave Temple, is at the top of a steep hill. An enormous gilded staircase (40 feet wide, 272 steps) snakes up the mountain to reach the temple and its gilded statue of Lord Subramanian. Tens of thousands of people, carrying torches to light the way, drag their chariots up the many steps. Tourists can join the procession, but we decline as we can’t face yet another teeming throng. Instead, we opt to watch the torchlight parade of pilgrims and marvel at this awe-inspiring demonstration of religious fervor. I also began plotting our strategy for returning to the bus–a non-trivial operation since pilgrims and visitors are still streaming in. We return to our apartment at 6:30 AM, so wound up in the evening’s experiences that sleep is impossible. I also smell (reek is a better word) of incense, sandalwood, curry, sweat, and mud, and stand under a hot shower for a very long time.
I am not sure if it is proper to say one has “enjoyed” such an experience, what with the pushing, screaming, heat, and crowds. I can say,however, that I was totally mesmerized, thoroughly awed, and utterly fascinated–an evening unlike anything I have done before or since.
(Read more about our adventures living and working in Malaysia, all at no cost, in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)