Malaysia 1985: Thaipusam – a Hindu festival

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85 
Chains are hooked to many male pilgrims’ back or chest, oranges or lime fruits dangling at the end of the chains. The weight of the fruits will increase the pain and suffering of the pilgrim. On this pilgrim, a spear has also been stuck through his cheeks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The crowds seem endless. Along the bazaar street, one pilgrim group after another is heading for the sacred Batu Caves, their members beating drums, shouting and singing on their way. In the centre of each group walks the man who has given Subramanya his vow to repent through suffering. On his shoulders, the heavy metal kavadi rack is resting, decorated with flowers, peacock feathers, images of Hindu gods, and all sorts of tinsel. Numerous chains are attached to the metal bars, with hooks at the end, piercing the pilgrim’s skin on his back and chest.

Likewise, chains are hooked to other male pilgrims’ back or chest, oranges or lime fruits dangling at the end of the chains. The weight of the fruits will increase the pain and suffering of the pilgrim. Others have needles stuck through their tongue, or their cheeks are pierced by up to two-metre-long spears. As their mouth cannot be closed, spit is running down their chin and neck. Coagulated blood on their tongue or cheeks is supplemented with red dye to increase the effect.

The kavadi of female pilgrims is much lighter than the men’s, almost all without hooks. Other women simply carry flower garlands or bowls with coconut milk.

During his walk, the suffering pilgrim will often stop to perform a wild dance, his companions uttering ear-shattering screams, while drummers beat their instruments to an incredible crescendo. The heavy oranges and lime fruits jump up and down during the dance, threatening to tear open the skin. Men with spears, piercing their cheeks, hold on to the spear with both hands during their dance, to avoid their cheeks being mutilated.

This is the day of repentance, forgiveness, and hope – this is Thaipusam.

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85
The area beneath the sacred Batu Caves was packed with people, all the way to the horizon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85
In the centre of each group of pilgrims walks the man who has given Subramanya his vow to repent through suffering. On his shoulders, the heavy metal kavadi is resting. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

‘The Spotless One’
A significant part of Malaysia’s inhabitants are of Indian descent, their forefathers – mainly Tamils from South India – being brought to the country as labourers during the 1800s by the British. They have retained their Hindu religion, characterized by a pantheon, holding thousands of gods and goddesses, and by a huge number of religious festivals.

In Malaysia, Thaipusam is the most important of these festivals. Every year in February, thousands of devout Hindus go on a pilgrimage to the sacred limestone caves of Batu, near Kuala Lumpur, to celebrate the birthday of Subramanya (‘The Spotless One’), another name of Skanda, who is the son of Shiva and his shakti (female aspect), Devi – also known by the names Uma, Parvati, Durga, or Kali. Shiva is among the three most important deities in the Hindu pantheon – a very complex god, who is simultaneously regarded as the Preserver, the Destructor, and the Recreator. In his destructive form, he performs a wild dance in a circle of fire while destroying the World – but it is recreated by the insane rhythm of his dance. In his recreating form, he is worshipped through a lingam, a phallus-shaped stone. Thaipusam is the time to ask Subramanya to forgive committed sins, to cure an illness, or to supply luck in the future. Enduring pain and suffering, you show the god that you are willing to bring a sacrifice to obtain his goodwill.

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85
This pilgrim has many hooks attached to his back and chest, from which lime fruits are dangling. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The sacred Batu Caves
On the appointed day, extra trains from Kuala Lumpur bring pilgrims and spectators to the Batu Caves, throughout the day. When my companion Jette Wistoft and I arrive around 8 o’clock, a huge crowd is already gathered beneath the limestone crags, which contain the sacred caves. The level area here has been transformed into a market place with countless traders’ tents, food-stalls, tiny restaurants, etc. Indian pop music is blaring from loudspeakers, the noise mingling with shouts from traders, who try to persuade people to buy their goods. The ground is littered with paper, banana peels, and other garbage.

Art Gallery is written on a sign outside two small limestone caves, enclosed by a fence. Before entering, each person must pay one Malaysian Dollar as a ’donation’. Inside, along the rock wall, is a long row of gypsum images, depicting Hindu gods, painted in vivid colours and illuminated by red, yellow, blue, and green bulbs. To us, they appear awfully bombastic, but Indians, dressed up to the nines, cup their hands in front of the images in supplication, throwing coins at their feet. Every now and then, a Hindu priest comes out to collect these coins.

Many of the pilgrims arrived long before dawn, and the first thing they did was to have a cleansing bath in the sacred river near the caves. They have been fasting for days, and this morning, assisted by their companions, they work themselves into a religious trance. They smear their face and naked chest in ashes, after which their companions place the heavy kavadi on their shoulders, piercing their skin with hooks, or their tongue with needles. As they are already in a trance, they probably feel less pain.

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85 
Several needles have been stuck through the tongue and cheeks of this pilgrim. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Climax of the pilgrimage
Between the river and the stairs, leading up to the caves, the pilgrims move through a compact mass of spectators. Tens of thousands have come to watch this festival of repentance. The pilgrims, now in a deep trance, are oblivious of their presence. Foam oozing out of their mouth, they perform spectacular dances, accompanied by incredible drumming crescendos. Young men jump up to balance on the edge of huge, sharp knives, held on the ground by their companions.

Before climbing the stairs, the repenting pilgrims make a brief stop to rest, their companions pouring water on their face and into their mouth. The stairs are divided into three sections. The central section, fenced off by thick ropes, is reserved for pilgrims and their companions. The left side is for ascending spectators, the right side for descending. Going up all 272 steps, we move in slow-motion, chest to back, unable to do anything but follow the stream. If you lose your hat or a sandal, it is gone. A couple of times a group of pilgrims, with their heavy kavadi, ascend our section of the stairs, and we must scramble aside to avoid being trampled. People shout and scream, and the many police officers, patrolling up and down the stairs, try to keep a minimum of order in this inferno.

From the top of the stairs, we have a remarkable view over the pilgrims’ parade. The whole area at the foot of the cliffs is packed with people, all the way to the horizon – 50,000 or more. The cave is illuminated by many lamps, and streaks of daylight are seeping through a natural opening in the ceiling. In here, the ecstasy of the pilgrims reaches its climax. One last wild dance is performed, before you sacrifice coconuts by smashing them on the floor. Camphor is burned in two enormous trays in the middle of the cave. The air is nauseating, stinking of smoke, sweat, camphor, and sweet coconut milk.

At the other end of the cave, small platforms have been constructed for people to rest on. The pilgrims – who are now hardly able to walk – are led here, supported by their companions. Hooks and kavadi are removed, and needles and spears pulled out rapidly, ashes being applied to the wounds. The pilgrims are then led to a small niche in the wall, where priests bless them, in return receiving small offerings of flower garlands or coconut milk.

The pilgrims are now led to the entrance and down the stairs, where long rows of beggars are seated – all the way down. The beggars have a great day, judging from the heaps of coins in front of them. At the foot of the stairs, the pilgrims make a brief stop to receive a drink – almost about to faint, but nevertheless happy. They have fulfilled their vow. They have gone through the sufferings of Thaipusam. Surely, Subramaniya will listen to their prayer and forgive their sins, or fulfill their wish.

They can go home with a peaceful mind.

 

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85
The stairs, leading up to the sacred caves, are divided into three sections. The central section, fenced off by thick ropes, is reserved for pilgrims and their companions. The left side is for ascending spectators, the right side for descending. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Malaysia 1984-85
In front of the caves, pilgrims are burning incense and presenting coconuts as an offering. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)