Monday, February 1, 2010

Vel! Vel! -Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Thaipusam was a week away but the MCG ( Malaysian Culture Group) members organised an outing to witness this important festival in the Hindu calendar. Thaipusam is a day of penance and thanksgiving. Hindus believe that sins can be cleansed during Thaipusam. The festival commemorates the killing of the demon Soorapadman by Lord Muruga.

It was Sunday and we met Cheryl, our coordinator for the outing at the main entrance of Batu Caves temple, after having battled traffic congestion. Today the devotees were already paying homage to Lord Muruga.

No one can miss Batu Caves, the limestone outcrop in Gombak district. On reaching there, rising above the ground, is the world's largest 100 foot golden statue of Lord Muruga. In the Temple cave resides the deity, Lord Muruga. Being the month of Thai ( late January - early February) in the Tamil calendar, this festival draws the largest number of devotees, estimated at 1.5 million.

On the eve of the festival the image of Lord Muruga , bejewelled , seated on a silver chariot is pulled by two bulls leaves Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Petaling Street in a grand procession to Batu Caves. Thousands of coconuts are also smashed along the route of the procession. People line the appointed route to witness this procession and to pay homage too. This eight hour procession culminates in a flight of 272 steps to the top of the Temple cave.

Devotees carry kavadis ('burdens' in Tamil) - paal kudams (milk pots), portable altars decorated with peacock feathers, small or big kavadis, all the way to the top. Chants of 'Vel! Vel!' ring out with the steps taken.

I'm glad to say 'I made it!' - to witness Thaipusam festival at first hand in Batu Caves. Thanks to the MCG for organising it, well in advance of the hundreds of thousands that throng this festival. All these years, it was the phobia of the crowds that kept me away. I have to say, there were already many people on the day we visited . Walking up the steps was an exercise in patience and humility. It was orderly - thank God!

So, here I am, no more the armchair viewer to give my personal account of Thaipusam. It's hard not to be blown away, especially by a first -time experience. My senses were literally assaulted - to see faith binding the faithfuls in such an affirming way. Also, the colours and sounds and smells make Thaipusam such a great attraction. Barely an hour had passed when I checked my watch, and I thought I had been there for a couple of hours. Every turn of the head, there was something happening to arrest my eyes - by the river, at the foothills, up the steps and right up in the Temple cave.

Was I afraid of the devotees in trance? Not really, as long as I kept my distance and they were just doing their 'calling'. For some faint -hearted, this heightened state of being might disturb them.

Definitely the kavadi bearers are the highlight of the rituals. For some, carrying kavadis can be a penance for sin or to overcome some bad karma and others to fulfil vows taken.

Here, there and everywhere, families were gathered to seek closeness with their deity. Definitely, it was a journey of faith and devotion.

Hues of yellow, orange, red flowers decorate the 2 -tiered circular kavadi adorned with peacock feathers and spear. The kavadi bearer is under the the lower frame.

A group of musicians who accompany kavadi bearers - beating and chanting praises for their god, Lord Muruga.

Helpers aplenty dishing out curry (also of rice) from the huge pots to feed the devotees. Giving of food, drinks and other essential services are ways to honour Lord Muruga. Being the holy month of Thaipusam, food is strictly vegetarian.

Not only was a shower a welcome to beat the midday heat but it was essential to cleanse before prayer.

Amidst the hive of activities, there was time to stand still and reflect. A boy stood in front of his father, poised to walk the steps leading up to the Temple.

To the Temple cave - up 272 steps. Young, old, families, kavadi bearers to the abode of Lord Muruga.

A family in the main cave paying their homage to Lord Muruga. On their shoulders are the offerings of milk in the paal kudam (milk pots).

Inside the Temple cave, devotees continue to proceed to another part to finish their pilgrimage to Lord Muruga. The crowds are there but the cool air makes it more bearable to enjoy the atmosphere.

Green is the word, for this devotee in a trance. Bunches of the neem leaves hanging on fish hooks on his back.

Lime covered with saffron, in a heap, ready for a devotee to have them hooked on his back.

To chants of 'Vel! Vel! (the symbol of the golden spear Parvati gave her son, Lord Muruga to vanquish the demons) rows of little silver paal kudams (milk pots) on a devotee's back. It seemed so straightforward an act as the devotee knelt for the ritual. No blood is let.

Brass bells and tiny silver paal kudams (milk pots) hooked on the back of a devotee in a trance

A lady devotee, in a trance with a skewer in her cheek, holding a paal kudam on her head,walking to the Temple . She was followed by family members who 'restrained' her by the chains wrapped round her body. Strict abstinence - food, carnal pleasures etc are observed before a kavadi is carried.

One of the many devotees in a trance wear gold embroidered headwear and flowers on hooks.

A mother and child bonding in an important religious festival.

Not to be left out, a young man helping to shave another on this auspicious day.

Vanity makes way for humility. No sacrifice is too great to celebrate Thaipusam.

Children as much part of the rituals of Thaipusam as the adults. There was a great sense of families coming together to worship their beloved god, Lord Muruga.

Offerings all laid out by the river bank, awaiting prayers before the walk up the steps to the Temple cave.

A family with their paal kudams milk pots)

Getting ready a small kavadi ready for the walk. Note the peacock feathers on the side and the spear in the middle

Sweet slumber, little one! I can't say for sure - but I didn't hear any baby cry in the hive of the Thaipusam activities. Well slung in saffron cradles , suspended on sugar cane stalks, the babies gave a gentle touch to the atmosphere of the pilrimage to Lord Muruga. In return for wishes granted, parents keep their vows and babies are brought before the deity to give thanks.

Grace (from Argentina) and I, after the walk up the 272 steps with the devotees. 'We made it!' she exclaimed. So we did! A spiritual day!

May the blessings of Lord Muruga be upon all !

Batu Caves
Sri Subramaniam Temple
Kuala Lumpur


  1. VERY interesting :-)
    Thanks for the information and special al your shots!!
    Its all so colorful ...
    But those "brass bells and tiny silver paal kudams" its looks sooooo painful :(
    Nice to see a photo from yourself
    did you really walked 272 steps..... LOL

  2. Very lovely photos of the event. Wow, you are good in making the way up the stairs. I doubt I could climb the stairs. My last visit to the caves was during my teenage time.

  3. So good to know someone I know actually made it to the celebrations, Keats! The traffic jam was terrific! Some of my friends gave up halfway. Some of them actually wanted to go there by midnight so as to be able to get a parking space. I was supposed to go the day after, Sunday, to assist in cleaning up the place with a Facebook group I joined, Sampah Masyarakat (ha ha!), which has the objective of getting volunteers to clean up public places, beaches and parks rather than just complain about the lack of cleanliness. Due to family circumstances, I wasn't able to make it. I will try again next year. I have to admit that I winced while looking at pics of the paal kudams hooked to the back of the devotee, though.

  4. Hi
    Anya, I enjoyed myself there.the newspapers had pics of the festival on Thaipusam day itself and gosh,the colours are more breathtaking. People were packed like sardines, all shoulder to shoulder.

    alicesg, thanks! i'm quite sure you can still make it up the steps. there's no hurry as the crowd moves slowly.

    ~Covert_Operations'78~,gosh,if you had been there on Sat and Sunday, the traffic jam would have been terrific. That day, we 'begged' to park nearby and were persistent and lingered longer. Luckily we got a space.Try and make it next year but an earlier visit will make things easier.The devotees in trance seemed at peace with themselves so it was not scary to watch them ! Some have more 'burdens' on them.

  5. Ohh ... I've never been to Batu Caves during Thaipusam. There are always too many people and the traffic ... couldn't handle that!
    But I enjoyed your beautiful pictures here. Thanks

  6. Stunning pictures and great post!

    Psst, got something for you at my blog!

  7. A very colourful post indeed. It was a special feeling at the top of the caves. This place is a fave among tourists.

  8. Great post Keats! I have never been to the actual Thaipusam...with so many people, but i have wanted so much to do a post on it. Great infor as well..will talk to you separate on our date :)

  9. WOW, these are really awesome shots! This is like watching the event live! Thanks, Keats.

  10. Vel! Vel! Vel! Lord Muruga! Wowie did you notice the ORBs in pix 8 & 9? There is one big Orb in pix 9 and 'they' can be easily 'captured' in holy places by digital cameras only. Had goose pimples when I saw them, so nice feeling. Lovely and colorful post. A mystical mind over matter. Namaste

  11. Hi
    lili11,crowds are hard to handle - for many people. Kudos for the excellent crowd control of the massive crowd by ALL,including authorities like the traffic police and the management of Batu Caves.

    Emily, thanks,my friend. Hey! is it an ang pow for Chinese New year?? Thanks for your lovely thought:)

    Autumn Belle,everyone can make use of the new train station that is almost ready. My friend, Grace says there's a lot of improvements since her visit last year. Terima kasih !

    M.Kate, I have to say, from my observations, tourists take to it like a duck to water. many go there to be part of this huge festival and come away very much amazed.

    Veronica Lee,thanks so much! hey!I'm so happy the pics are a hit! - with many of you. I couldn't help thinking that I should be having a dslr in my hand tho. Mine is a little digital Canon. It'll have to wait...

  12. Indeed a very colorful event. And you have done well taking the pictures in such a big crowd. And the story and information is also very interesting. Things I would not have known if I did not read your blog!

  13. Beautiful shots and excellent coverage.

  14. Hi
    Ocean Girl, I was really surprised 'coz I didn't realize I was thoroughly busy - I clicked 289 times on my camera !!! With digital, you hit the button. LOL

    Rajesh, Thank you so much for your appreciation.

    BLOGitse, I understand your feelings. Needles hurt- big or small!

  15. What a very special post. Thanks for sharing all this. I must say...that is a huge vat of curry. yum. It is becoming one of my favorite foods lately. I loved all your photos, as usual, very well done, ss girl!

  16. I have enjoyed reading this must and will try to remember that Vanity should make way for humility.

  17. Wonderful recapturing and reliving of an auspicious day, thankyou for these images.

    On another auspicious note, my brother is getting married in Singapore this summer and his fiancee has been trying to find wedding dresses, etc to organise - she thinks she has found a wedding dress in KL, but I was wondering if you had any knowledge of wedding day websites you could put me in touch with? She will be in Manila later this week to check things there as well. Any advice to a novice bride and bridesmaid?? :)

  18. Hi
    Bananaz, oops, sorry, I missed your comment. Namaste!

    Rosey Pollen, thanks so much for your great compliments.I've enjoyed doing the post too for the readers to know more about Thaipusam. Is it curry for lunch or dinner?? - enjoy !

    Laura in Paris, how true!

  19. Hi Shaista (Lupus in Flight), glad you enjoyed the images.Congrates on the wedding in summer. Sure thing, I'll look into the request and contact you. Take care,as always:))

    ChatteringMing, thanks! do visit again!

  20. Hi Keats! Sorry for the absence, but this starting of the year has been even crazier than usual!

    Wonderful post, lovely pictures, but, in particular, lots to learn!!
    Everything OK?

    Blogtrotter 2 is departing Miami by sea. Hope you like it and have a great week!!

  21. Hi
    Trotter,thanks for keeping in touch.It's a busy time here. We're celebrating Federal Territories Day and Chinese New Year is just round the corner too.There's so much festivity in the air already. Have a great time,yourself:)

  22. Whoa! So wonderfully presented, rich with info and visuals. Great post. I have not witnessed this yet. Next year I must go.

  23. Such beautiful, colourful write-up!

    You are my true "Malaysian" tutor! :)

  24. Hi
    Indrani, thanks so much!luckily I decided not to be an armchair viewer this year !! I too benefited much myself :)) Do visit Kuala Lumpur next year!

    lupie, thanks for this honour:) Getting to know Malaysia is to love Malaysia!! Am learning all the time.

  25. Nice colourful events. The traffic was heavy in that area. There were many stalls along Jalan Kuching giving away sponsored food and drinks!

  26. Oh my goodness, what an intriguing celebration! Though the fish hooks on those men look terribly painful, but you've covered the event with so many fabulous pictures!

  27. Hi
    Pete, Were you caught in the massive traffic jam? It's inevitable with such a huge gathering.

    Icy BC,thanks so much! Thaipusam really intrigues many who visit Batu Caves to be part of the festival.

  28. i didn't get to see to this cave when i was there...

  29. Hi
    akosimememe, welcome to my blog. Should you visit again,just ask for Batu Caves. Everyone knows it. There are tours conducted too for the Dark Cave, which is located just below the Temple Cave if you'd like to experience caving.

  30. This is the first time I have heard and read about Thaipusam. You have written a very interesting post again. I learn so much, every time I come visit here. Hugs and love :)


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