Thaipusam was approaching, and our journalists were already nervous about the crowd at Batu Caves. We have heard countless tales of stagnant crowds up the famous flight of 272 stairs, not to forget the horrifyingly packed public transport. However, the excitement for an expedition exploring the cultural aspects of the festival could not stop us from hitting the sacred site just outside of KL- only we arrived at the temple one exact week before the actual day of Thaipusam celebration. We were worried that nothing interesting could be observed early ahead of the big day, but we won the bet. Batu Caves blessed us with a rather holistic experience that showcased most of what one ought not to miss from the festival. Thaipusam is an important festival for Hindu devotees. It is celebrated to honour the day Goddess Parvati gave her son, Lord Murugan, a divine spear better known as the Vel to destroy the evil demon, Surapadman. Interestingly, another meaning to the word ‘Thaipusam’ comes from ‘Thai’ being the 10th month in the Tamil calendar, and ‘Pusam’ being the star of the day.
Why is Batu Caves a famous spot for Thaipusam? It is said that according to ancient scriptures, hills are the favourite spot for Lord Murugan to reside, thus devotees built temples at such locations. Batu Caves was one of those sacred places to have been discovered. Having one of the most intriguing landscapes, Batu Caves could not miss being in the headlines for obvious reasons. Thus, Lord Murugan is famously celebrated and worshipped at this particular temple.
Our journalists arrived at SJK(T) Batu Caves at around 8.30am on the 29th of January 2023. There were food stalls set up and Hindu devotees in shades of yellow walking passed us towards the temple. Yellow is Lord Muragan’s favourite colour, which eventually becomes a go-to colour for Thaipusam. But to our disappointment, none of us found out this trivia beforehand so we were not wearing yellow.
Yet, what intrigued us the most outside the school was devotees getting their heads shaved. Our guide of the day, Ganessh, who is part of the Sponsorship team of Charisma Movement, took the opportunity to explain that some male devotees shave their hair to eliminate their ego. It is an interesting perspective that views safeguarding one’s good looks as feeding one’s ego, and by removing their good looks (by removing one’s hair), the devotees take a path more blessed and humbled.
Another perspective on shaving heads is based on an old Tamil phrase which stipulates that God gave life to the devotees, and so in return they offer their hair. However, shaving your head is not a compulsory practice at Thaipusam. Young male devotees often require their parents or guardians’ permission, so as do female devotees need their parents’ or spouses’ prior permission. We trailed against crowds heading towards the temple- which led us to the river where the prayers began. It was a short walk from the school, across a pedestrian bridge and a road. Most families started their rituals at sunrise, but many did not start until it was a slightly more comfortable time to get up, so we were lucky to be able to observe some.
Personal or family prayers normally take place by the river first. Devotees would bathe, or in modern days, clean their feet, using water from the river before prayers. A typical altar setup on the ground would use large undamaged banana leaves as a base, with offerings including coconuts, bananas, betel leaves, joss sticks, clay oil lamps, puffed rice, betel nuts (aka areca nuts) and three colourful ingredients: herbal ash, sandalwood paste and vermillion powder.
White herbal ash is commonly used in Hindu prayers. Traditionally, Hindu devotees cremate the dead, which means life ends as ash. Ash signifies life as merely a journey and hedonism is discouraged. Sandalwood paste is yellow in colour and is typically used for a cooling effect when applied on the skin. Vermillion is blood red, and is symbolic of righteousness.
Wealthier or bigger families might use a proper altar to conduct their prayers. This includes a nicely decorated table where all the offerings or other prayer-use materials are placed on.
Walking by stalls that sell prayer-use flowers, coconuts and betel leaves, we found cartons of milk being sold, which was a weird sight for us who had little to no concept of Thaipusam. Milk is essentially used for a ritual known as the Paal Kudam, or milk pot procession, where devotees pray using milk as an offering and bring it from the river up the temple to shower the Deity. Since ancient times, milk has been viewed as a valuable commodity as it is a holy product from cows, which is considered sacred in Hinduism. Today, offering milk to the Deity signifies offering your valuables.
Milk was poured into metal pots, and used for prayers by the river, before being sealed and brought to the temple on the heads or shoulders of devotees. They would use turmeric-dyed or yellow cloth to seal the pots. The three colourful ingredients mentioned earlier would be added onto the cloth for religious significance.
The third thing used to fulfil devotees’ vows at Thaipusam, other than shaving heads and milk pot procession, is none other than the Kavadi. A Kavadi is a physical burden, commonly in the form of a flamboyant metal structure men would wear on their bodies as a bearing of burden, in seek of the Deity’s assistance on behalf of one who needs healing or spiritual balancing. Traditionally, it is used to help transport more milk to the temple- it could be just a wooden pole with milk pots attached at both ends, to be carried over the shoulders. However, it became decorative over years and is also of more celebratory significance in modern days. Today, the additional weight it poses is significant as an extra challenge to the devotees’ level of devotion. Smaller and simpler Kavadis to be carried over one shoulder are in fact the default form of Kavadis for all ages, both male and female. However, the bigger ones are commonly worn by men only.
This particular Kavadi which we got to observe was worth RM7000, cost from scratch, according to the service provider who stood near the praying family. Yes, Kavadi rental business exists. A common rental package would cost around RM800 and it comes with assistance in putting it on, ritual services and bringing the Kavadi down from the temple. The boss of the service provider was seen helping out with prayer rituals and the setting up of the altar for this family. The rental package seems a pretty good deal for a once-in-a-year experience, with much worries taken off the shoulders at decent pricing.
Special prayers would be conducted when the Kavadi is worn, with drum teams boisterously hyping up the ritual nearby. We felt the cultural presence strongly thanks to the drummers. In fact, they would lead the Kavadi bearer on their way to the temple after all necessary prayer rituals are completed. Milk pot processors would then trail the Kavadi bearers. This would be what we commonly see as a parade by the road.
More on the special prayers mentioned, we were lucky enough to witness a rare case of trance. A female devotee shrieked and danced, lingering next to the Kavadi bearer and chanting words of prayer. Her eyes sparkled a sharpness none could match, and her tongue was out hanging, resembling a deity. We were told that she must have achieved unmatched levels of concentration and devotion during her prayers, for the deity to take control of her physical shell to provide blessings directly to the Kavadi bearer. The lady was unconscious during and after the episode. Yet, trance is commonly regarded as a major gift, and so she was celebrated when she awoke from passing out. Unfortunately, the journalists were too engaged by the sight and so we did not capture any footage. Some might regard trance as an inappropriate study, as it challenges the existence of god and deity. While most believe such episodes are valid, there have been cases of ‘fake trance’, which deceit others and are regarded as despicable and disrespectful towards the mighty beings. The Hindu community highly values the occurrence of trance and families would feel extra blessed with the occurrence of trance in their rituals.
We made our way to the temple, and watched the unique Kavadi dance by the Kavadi bearers before the flight of stairs at Batu Caves. They held the metal structures with pride and danced with a burst of energy. We could only imagine the amount of weight they carried, let alone they had to hike the 272 steps to reach the temple. This propelled an undeniable amazement towards their devotion to develop in us.
However, the Kavadi bearers were not the only ones worthy of our respect. The milk pots processors held pots which weighed equivalent to dumbbells suitable for their ages. Another interesting sight was devoted parents carrying their infants wrapped in cloth using a bundle of sugarcanes. It is said to be a way of showing appreciation towards Lord Murugan for blessing them with a child. Their journey would start from the temple below Batu Caves and end at the temple at the top of the stairs. How incredible is that?!
We followed the parade but made our way up the Batu Caves stairs as swiftly as we could without taking an extra breath- the journalists were secretly hiking enthusiasts. We were pointed to the spot where Kavadis were placed in the temple as we walked towards where milk pots were delivered to. Temple volunteers would shower their Deity statue with the milk in the pots in a ritual known as Abhishegam (pouring something sacred on the Deity as an offering), before returning the devotees with empty containers. The devotees would then pray at the statues in the temple, marking the end of their Thaipusam rituals.
It was an extremely enriching experience for the journalists as we had the chance to observe the festival first-hand. We wanted to cover Thaipusam as a topic as we felt it is often not acknowledged or appreciated enough by non-Hindu Malaysians. We hope our recount would give you a taste of what happens at Batu Caves during Thaipusam. Did it make us better Malaysians? We believe it did, and we hope for the same for you too. Remember, mutual understanding of cultures and beliefs is one safe way towards excelling together as a multiracial community.
Text and photos by,
Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.