Thaipusam: 272 stairs to god’s favor

Malaysia is known mainly as an Islamic country but this diverse country is created also by Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. The Tamil people are originally from India and make up about 6% of Malaysian population. Their greatest and most important ceremony is Thaipusam which is dedicated to the god Murugan and his great victory over the demon Soorapadam. Before I attended Thaipusam I knew only one thing about it – there are approximately 1,6 millions of people every year. I am not very fond of crowded places and this number really scared me. I decided to go there during the night and thought there might be less people and also lower temperature. I could not be more wrong.
The temperature finally fell slightly below 30 degrees and I reached Batu Caves where Thaipusam took place. This giant cave complex is situated 15 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur and is easily accessible directly from the city center. As soon as I got off the train I was absorbed by the mass of brightly dressed and excited people. The whole area around the caves reminds me of an enormous Indian flea market. There were numbers of shops selling vegetarian food and snacks, Hindu prayer items, clothes and cold drinks. Tamil men were shaved and prepared for the great celebration. The air was thick with mixture of exotic scents and smell of sweat. To take a picture was really challenging for me because people were everywhere and the crowd was really dense almost solid.

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After one hour I finally arrived at the foot of 272-step stairs which led to the caves guarded by the enormous golden statue of lord Murugan. Devotees were streaming through the stairs in endless waves carrying burdens (called “kavadi”) on their shoulders. These carriers were shaking, screaming and singing in the wild rhythms of percussions preparing them for the most difficult part of their journey. The whole pilgrimage begins in Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur and ends in Batu Caves. To get to the caves, Tamils had to climb very steep and slippery stairs. Carrying various forms of “kavadi” really challenged their devotion and physical endurance. “Kavadi” could have various forms – from big pots filled with milk to enormous iron constructions with pictures, icons a symbols of Murugan. The heaviest burdens could weigh up to 100 kilograms. Many Tamils were covered with small hooks piercing their skin that held apples, bananas, limes or little pots with milk. Many of them had spears (main symbol of Murugan) penetrating their cheeks and tongues. However, they didn’t feel any pain because of the deep trance.

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Climbing the stairs up along the other devotees I was thankful for any gust of the wind on my face because the extreme air humidity with presence of so many people was a challenging combination. Many “kavadi” carriers looked exhausted but many of them were walking with admirable peace of mind. Devotees (especially with heavy burdens) were surrounded by their family members and close friends who supported them every time they seemed to lose their balance. I would say that the religious character is strongly connected with social and family meaning. At the top of the stairs, inside the cave, the act of devotion was completed. Murugan got his gift, Tamils finished their journey and the spears and hooks could be finally removed. Some people lost the consciousness but their families were ready to help. “Kavadi” carriers thanked and blessed their family members and finally took a rest.

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From my western perspective this was a little bit cruel and violent ceremony. But I wasn’t afraid because people were very friendly and happy no matter what they were carrying. All the way I was thinking what was so striking and so astonishing about this ceremony. Later I found the answer. This was the most authentic religious ceremony I have ever seen. In some way I felt like some very old spirit was present. These people were really deeply spiritual – a fact seen only seldom among western countries.

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