Thaipusam – Malaysia’s Shocking Hindu Festival

Written By: The Planet D

It is the most fascinating festival you will ever witness. Thaipusam is a Hindu Festival that happens every January or February.  Thaipusam is celebrated by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, and Mauritius. But nowhere celebrates it as big as Malaysia.

Celebrated during the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, (January or February) Thaipusam draws thousands of devotees paying their respects to the Lord Muruga.   It is a colourful and shocking Hindu festival where devotees pierce themselves with pins and spikes, hang pots and fruit off of their chests with hooks and pull chariots or people hanging onto heavy rope attached to their backs by hooks.

Thaipusam Festival Malaysia Asia

thaipusam festival malaysia asia silver

Thaipusam is a day of celebration as devotees pray to the Lord Muruga for good luck in the coming year.  They thank him for a wish that was granted this past year or as I read in the paper, for the good grades they received in school.

The ages range from the very young. Babies have their heads shaves and piercings were as young as 13-years old to people well into their 70’s. They are offering penance to Lord Muruga for their own and various reasons.

Where to Celebrate Thaipusam

thaipusam festival malaysia asia rod

We have had the privilege to experience two Thaipusam Festivals.  Our first was at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, our second was ins Penang. Read more about Penang, Malaysia 16 Best Things To Do In Penang, Malaysia

There weren’t as many people in Penang as there were in Kuala Lumpur.  Over a million people make their way to the Batu Caves where as 20,000 people visit the waterfall temple in Penang.

Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur

coconuts at festival

For a first-time Thaipusam attendee, we would suggest going to the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur.  It is far more exciting and energetic. The crowds are bigger and the devotees are far more outlandish and flamboyant.  

At the Batu Caves, people seemed to be in a more crazed state of trance. Their eyes were wild and void of recognition.  The energy is more animalistic and frenzied.

man at festival

In Penang, it is more reserved. The crowds are smaller, the devotees are calm and relaxed.  You feel as if you could walk up and talk to them, to ask them how they are feeling. They are in a trance, but seem to be very aware and present at the same time.

Thaipusam in Penang

decorations at thaipusam

In Penang, we could walk right up to devotees and take extreme close-ups of their faces and backs.  We didn’t have to fight the crowd of a million people as we did in KL to catch a glimpse of a worshipper. We enjoyed the quieter energy of Penang. The devotees were just as devoted and impressive, they were just fewer and farther in between.

The pilgrimage route to the temple was shaded by trees and the steps to the top of the temple were shorter and less crowded. We stood right beside a group of devotees from China and watched their handlers take care of their open wounds. They bathed them with water and guarded the long spikes sticking out of their cheeks.

flowers at festival

We felt that we could study Thaipusam and felt more a part of it rather than the faraway observer that we were in Kuala Lumpur.

While I would never change my first experience of Thaipusam at the Batu Caves, I was grateful to be a part of the procession, the breaking of coconuts for good luck in the year ahead and an up close and personal observer of Amazing Thaipusam in Penang.

What is Thaipusam?

dancer at malaysia festival

Thaipusam takes place at the end of January. It is a sacred Hindu Festival and the best place to experience Thaipusam for first-time attendees is in Kuala Lumpur where the largest congregation of people will converge for a three-day festival at the Batu Caves.

According to the papers, 1.5 million people attend the Thaipusam pilgrimage this year and we are in the heart of the action. Staying at a guesthouse in Chinatown, we are only two blocks from the start of the procession where worshippers pay tribute to Lord Muruga.

thaipusam festival malaysia asia hooks

The pilgrimage begins at midnight where devotees begin a 13km walk from downtown Kuala Lumpur to the base of the Caves following his Golden Chariot.  It is here that they will be put into a trance and begin their journey up the 272 steps to the entrance of this vast chamber.

Who Takes Part in Thaipusam

thaipusam man

People take part in Thaipusam for different reasons.  Some to give thanks for a miracle which has happened in their lives, others to ask for a wish to be granted or to rid themselves of their sins by carrying burdens and piercing their bodies.  However, this is not your ordinary everyday piercing. 

thaipusam spears

These devoted people have a Priest drive spikes through their cheeks and tongues or insert hooks into their backs and chests on which they hang various fruit or milk pots to add to the discomfort.  Some people carry Kevadi’s; giant cumbersome alters made of steal decorated with vibrant ribbons and peacock feathers, while others simply carry a pot full of coconut milk upon their heads to take to the cave as an offering.  A feat in itself due to the heat and number of people they have to push through.

Batu Caves

parade thaipusam

We arrived at the Batu Caves 24 hours after the procession began in the middle of the night by local bus. Drums are beating and people are chanting “Vel Vel” as the overwhelming crowd pushes forward towards the cave high in a cliff overhead. It feels like a dream as you sway in the intense heat among the squeeze of people. 

Crowd inside batu caves at Thaipusam kuala lumpur
Inside the Batu Caves

I worked my way out of the procession to the safety of a drainage pipe overlooking the masses for as far as the eye can see watching in awe as people pass.  Their wide eyes seeing through me as I snap my camera. Sometimes devotees will break into a wild dance or let out a primal scream. Others are more playful and dance to the music putting beetle nut on the foreheads of onlookers.

Preparation for Thaipusam

Thaipusam Malaysia Hooks and Spikes

They seem to be connected to something ancient and powerful feeling no pain and experiencing little fatigue due weeks of meditation, a strict diet, and then finally a fast to help them prepare for this important event.

We are so enthralled with Thaipusam that we take the bus back to the caves the following morning.  Exhausted from the night before and working on only 2 hours of sleep, we haul ourselves out of bed to experience for a second time this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The daylight hours take away a bit of the eeriness and we feel a little braver under the bright sky.  Hooks and spikes are bigger, kevadis are more ornate, and the worshippers are as committed as ever.

Steps to the Batu Caves

Thaipusam Malaysia steps to batu caves

We have managed to join the procession this time walking up the steep flight of stairs with thousands of other people to enter the caves.  The sun is overwhelming and it is a relief to reach the cool darkness. It is here that we are treated to an intimate view of people coming out of their trances, having their hooks and piercing removed and to watch some mischievous monkeys fight for bananas.

Reactions

worshipper shows off at Malaysia's Thaipusam

In a roped-off area, each person reacts differently to the effects of their difficult task.  Some people faint once they have finished their pilgrimage and are surrounded by loved ones who massage feeling back into their arms and legs as they lie on the rocky floor.  Some bleed as their hooks are extracted from their backs and chests, but most of the time, not a drop of blood is spilled. 

fruit at thaipusam

It is said that their deep trance and strict preparations, stop the flow.  Priests carefully take out the spikes and hooks, stuffing the wounds with ash and disinfecting them with lime.  It looks painful, but they seem oblivious.

The cave is quiet and calm, a contrast to the enormous energy and excitement of outside.  Their ordeal is over and burdens are lifted.  It seems almost anticlimactic to watch people talking casually, laughing with each other or walking calmly around the cave, taking in the sights.

The festival has come to an end and the only thing left is the long procession back to Kuala Lumpur where the Golden Chariot will return to it’s home at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple.

Thaipusam

thaipusam paint

This incredible event happens all over Malaysia and Singapore. Pilgrims pay homage to Lord Muruga for different reasons as they make their pilgrimage to the Batu Caves carrying heavy Kevadis, pulling chariots, and suffering through heat and exhaustion.

We didn’t think that we would ever witness another Thaipusam, but we found ourselves back in Malaysia at the very time it happened again and it was just as fascinating as the first.

This is by far the most fascinating festival we have ever taken part in and we look forward again to being observers in the Mighty Hindu Festival known as Thaipusam. 

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

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24 thoughts on “Thaipusam – Malaysia’s Shocking Hindu Festival”

  1. It’s funny how travelers see these festivals in a different light while we locals tend to take it as a normal thing. But it’s good that you highlight some of the fascinating events that happen in each country. As for me, I have been to Batu caves too many times over the many years but never did write about it nor photograph it. Also, when you were here, did you manage to catch the few Caucasians who pierced themselves in devotion? A strange sight but very interesting indeed, especially when they carry the Kavadi. Next time you’re around in KL, look me up for a drink.

    Reply
    • Very true David, Thaipusam for you would be old hat for sure. For us it is captivating. We never did see the Westerners who pierced themselves. I have heard that there are some that do, but we have yet to see them. However in Penang this year we did see a big contingent from China and that was quite interesting to see.
      We will definitely look you up. This year we didn’t make it to KL but the next time we are back in your part of the world, we will definitely be there! Cheers.

      Reply
  2. Hey Guys,
    What a unique festival that most people won’t able to see. These are really fantastic shots even though those hooks looks painful. : ) You really take beautiful shots!

    Reply
  3. Hi Dave and Deb,
    This festival is big in South Africa as well due to their Tamil community. Then there’s the catholic festival in the Philippines, and Ashura in Pakistan and Iran that gets bloody and weird like that…. I am a sissy when it comes to even watching these pictures I’ll faint if I see it in person and I’m not kidding (and I’ll be honest, I switched off images on this page..hehe). 🙁
    Priyank

    Reply
  4. Really powerful photos. You can feel the emotion from them. What’s amazing is how calm everyone looks in the face of what must be an incredibly painful process with all the hooks and piercings.

    Reply
    • So true Audrey. While we were standing on the stairs on the way up to the temple, I was standing right behind a devotee with giant spikes through his cheeks. I examined him and even with all those hooks, spikes and pins in him, he looked completely serene. It was hot and I was uncomfortable enough in the burning sun, let alone standing in the crowd and heat with spikes in my skin. It is amazing.

      Reply
  5. Incredible pictures.
    I’ve never been to this festival in Malaysia, but I’ve seen some of this same type of thing in Thailand at the vegetarian festival. Some of the stuff, like slicing tongues definitely makes me a little squeamish.

    Reply
    • Mark I am with you. We watched the people get pierced and nothing bothered me until they stuck the pins and hooks through the tongues. Now that’s gotta hurt.

      Reply
  6. Ow ow ow… just looking at these photos makes me cringe in empathy with the physical pain. It’s really great to see this insight into their culture and spiritual traditions, though…. thanks for sharing this experience with us! 🙂

    Reply
    • I am glad you liked it Christy. Apparently they don’t feel anything because of the month of preparations. Fasting and meditating. If I did’t see it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it. But they don’t seem to feel the pain.

      Reply
  7. Yikes! I LOVE festivals and we have seen and participated in tons the last 5 years on our open ended family world tour, but this does not look appealing at all. It does produce the kind of photo’s that travel blog readers like, so perhaps we will try it next year as we will be in Penang for several winters while our 10 year old immerses deeply in her Mandarin at an all Chinese school. Looks really painful and truly sad and I am too empathetic not to be bothered by that.

    I am looking much more forward to the HAPPY Chinese New Year celebrations starting this week in Penang which are MUCH more family friendly. 😉

    Sorry we missed you while you dipped in here ( Penang) for a few days to see this. Timing just didn’t work well as kidlet was sick and my 83 year old mother was arriving from California and I know your focus was getting these lovely photos.

    Glad that you enjoyed yourselves!

    Reply
    • Yes, too bad we missed you. but I am sure we will meet up somewhere soon. If you get the chance, try to go to Thaipusam next year. We did Chinese New Year in Malaysia a few years ago and it is a very nice holiday.

      Reply
  8. I had a hard time looking at these – so beautiful and yet so painful to imagine (I’m so sensitive to other people’s pain….if you even mention getting a paper cut, I feel it!)….

    Understanding other culture’s festivals is very important to understanding the people….I know there are quite a few cultures that believe that pain = faith, and the greater the pain (or hardship), the greater the faith. So as much as I would never participate, I can admire and respect their tradition. Thanks for sharing these photos!

    Reply
  9. This is one of my favorite festivals in the world. I went to the one in Singapore – and it sounds similar to the one in Penang – you could get really close. I would LOVE to go for a 2nd time though as I think I could do better photography the 2nd time around.
    Dave – the photos are absolutely stunning here…bravo!

    Reply
    • Sherry, I am so glad that there is another Thaipusam lover out there. You are right, the second time around was much better. We weren’t as intimidated. The first time we thought we were disturbing their concentration. But in essence, they love posing and having people take photos. As you know they make sure to stop when a large crowd is around so that everyone has a chance to watch.

      Reply
  10. wow…That must have been really awesome the second time around. I have a question thought. Do they do the same piercings etc each year? Does it get easier for them each year? or do they do all new ones?

    Reply
    • I have wondered about that myself. I think that they do as people that have done it for several years use larger hooks and thicker spikes through their cheeks. It seems like the new devotees start of small and than over time they work up to larger items.

      Reply