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 to pay their respects to Lord Murugan. It is a colorful 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 have people hanging onto a heavy rope attached to their backs by hooks.
Thaipusam Festival Malaysia Asia
In 2023 Thaipusam is being celebrated on Sunday, February 5. Thaipusam is a day of celebration as devotees pray to the Lord Murugan 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 of participants range from very young to very old. Babies have their heads shaved and piercings were as young as 13 years old to people well into their 70s. They are offering penance to Lord Murugan for their own and various reasons.
Where to Celebrate Thaipusam
We have had the privilege to experience two Thaipusam Festivals. Our first Thaipusam was at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, our second was ins Penang. Read more about Penang, Malaysia at 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 but both were as equally fascinating.
Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur
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.
We started the procession with devotees at midnight from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest temple in Kuala Lumpur and walked to the Batu Caves. It was a mass of people and we felt the squeeze of claustrophobia. But we made sure to stay on the fringes of the crowds.
At the Batu Caves, people seemed to be in more of a crazed state of trance. Their eyes were wild and void of recognition. The energy is more animalistic and frenzied.
In Penang, it felt 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.
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.
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.
Thaipusam in Penang
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.
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?
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 Murugan.
The pilgrimage begins at midnight when 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
People take part in Thaipusam for different reasons. Some give thanks for a miracle that has happened in their lives, and others 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.
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 steel 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.
Preparation for Thaipusam
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
We 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.
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.
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.
This incredible event happens all over Malaysia and Singapore. Pilgrims pay homage to Lord Murugan 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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