Born and raised in Malaysia, Mazlan is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage. He likes to write about its culture and current issues.
Thaipusam Celebration in Batu Caves
This may come as a surprise to many people, but the world's biggest and most colorful Hindu religious festival—Thaipusam—is celebrated in Malaysia's Batu Caves, not in India.
Batu Caves is a limestone outcrop just north of Kuala Lumpur and the site of a prominent Hindu temple and shrine.
What Is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is a holy festival celebrated by Hindus of Tamil origin from South India as a thanksgiving to their deity, Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Muruga). It is the most elaborate and spectacular of all the Hindu festivals, mainly due to the combination of what seems like painful body piercing and religious practice.
Hindu Celebrations and Festivals
Hindu celebrations and festivals such as Thaipusam and Diwali are celebrated not only in India but also in countries where there are major concentrations of Tamils such as Malaysia and Singapore.
The Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is, in fact, one of the major religious festivals in the country. It is also the biggest among the countries that celebrate Thaipusam.
Thaipusam Rites and Rituals
Devotees who make their vows and prayers to Lord Subramaniam will subject themselves to sacrificial acts in exchange for an answered prayer. The prayers could be for recovery from sickness, to seek forgiveness for past misdeeds, or a childless couple asking for a baby, etc.
This sacrificial act could be in the form of carrying a kavadi that weighs several pounds and is attached to the body by skewers and hooks (see photo above). This is usually done by the most serious male pilgrims.
Other Forms of Doing Penance
But the penance can be in a 'simpler' form of just fasting for the day or carrying a pot of milk during the procession. There are also devotees who will go for a slightly 'serious' sacrificial act but not as tough as carrying the heavy-weight kavadis; these devotees may opt instead to have their tongues and cheeks pierced (see photo below).
Shaving the head (especially for children), giving food and drink to devotees, and providing other essential services are other forms of penance that can be observed.
The Thaipusam procession from one temple to another main temple (varies according to region) can be several miles long. Family members and supporters follow the devotees during this procession, chanting prayers and offering encouragement.
What Is a Kavadi?
Types of Kavadi
There are four types of kavadi for the Thaipusam procession:
- Idumban Kavadi: Pots filled with milk and suspended on rods carried on the shoulder
- Mayil Kavadi: Similar to Idumban kavadi except that it is decorated with peacock feathers
- Pal Kavadi: Metal pot filled with milk and carried on one side of the shoulder only
- Pushpa Kavadi: Pot filled with milk and carried on the head
Materials Used for Kavadi
The design and material vary according to the wishes of the kavadi bearers. The most common materials for kavadi are aluminum plates, wooden plates, nuts and bolts and peacock feathers.
Kavadi made of polystyrene are popular in Ipoh and Penang, while kavadi decorated with LED lights are popular in Ipoh.
Who Can Carry the Kavadi?
Whilst this doesn't happen every year, people of other ethnicities and faiths occasionally participate and carry the kavadi during Thaipusam.
Thaipusam devotees are required to cleanse themselves with at least a month of prayer, fasting and a series of strict physical and mental disciplines. These include a strict vegetarian diet and maintaining self-discipline such as abstinence from sex.
This is meant to put the devotees into a trance-like state that will allegedly numb them from the pain of the skewers and hooks and prevent these piercings from leaving any scars.
Before the devotees put on their respective kavadis, prayers will be conducted at home for a smooth flow of events.
Thaipusam Festival in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country, and this multicultural and multilingual society makes the country a melting pot of various religious festivals. Thaipusam is just one of these festivals.
The Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia is held in most parts of the country, but the largest gatherings are in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the Diwali celebration, Thaipusam is not a public holiday for the whole country; it is only celebrated in certain states.
The three-day Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur starts at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Chinatown and ends in Batu Caves, covering a distance of about 9.5 miles.
In the early morning on the eve of the celebration, the Thaipusam procession will depart Sri Mahamariaman Temple with Lord Muruga's idol heading the procession. Hundreds of devotees carrying their kavadi or whatever form of sacrificial act that they opted for will go on this 9.5-mile procession, which is an 8-hour journey.
Batu Caves Temple
On arrival at Batu Caves temple, a prayer ceremony will be held at the foot of the caves. The Batu Caves temple is very unique and is an attraction of its own, even outside the Thaipusam celebration day. The temple is located in one of the biggest caves, and to reach it you need to climb the 272 steps (see photo below).
Devotees carrying their offerings will climb these 272 steps and offer their prayers. Those who had their body pierced with skewers and hooks will have them removed whilst the priest chants over them. Amazingly enough, there will not be a drop of blood and the wounds—treated with hot ash—will not leave any scar!
Thaipusam Celebration and Festival in Other Parts of Malaysia
Thaipusam is celebrated in other towns in Malaysia with a large Tamil community. The biggest celebration sites outside Kuala Lumpur are at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple in Penang and Sri Subramanian Temple in Gunong Cheroh, Ipoh, Perak (another cave site).
Thaipusam Photo Gallery
Thaipusam in Malaysia: Advice and Tips for Visitors
If you are visiting Malaysia for this event, it is advisable to make your travel booking early.
The celebration starts early at 5 am and goes on until late at night. Be up early and bring a fully charged camera to capture the full action of Thaipusam.
Admission to the celebration is free. With more than 1 million devotees, supporters and visitors, you can get overwhelmed, especially within the confined temple area. So bring extra drinking water and food with you. These are also available at the site, but it is best to have them with you so as not to lose precious time queuing up to buy.
If you are visiting the celebration at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, the best way is to take the commuter train from KL Sentral Station to Sentul Station. Buses and taxis are the other options but with the heavy traffic and traffic diversions, it will be slower. Your hotel can assist you on how to get to KL Sentral station or the buses or taxi from your hotel.
If you are unable to make it to Thaipusam celebrations this year, you can always plan for the following year. Malaysia is rich in various religious and cultural festivals, and you are bound to be in one of these festivals whenever you visit Malaysia.
Malaysia is also noted for the variety of foods from its many ethnic groups making the country a gourmet center. So come over not just to savor the sights and sounds but also the flavor of Malaysia.
Thaipusam 2020 and 2021
In the year 2020, despite the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of devotees and visitors still thronged Batu Caves for Thaipusam. It was a significant weekend as it was the year Batu Caves celebrated its 130th Thaipusam.
As expected, the celebration was just as big and grand as in previous years. Not many people were wearing face masks.
However, in 2021, only the chariot was allowed to make its annual trip from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple Dhevasthanam in Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves temple in Selangor. There was no music or procession and no stops along the way.
Only 10 people were allowed to accompany the chariot. Devotees performed the rites in the comfort of their homes.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Mazlan A