If you’re looking for a truly unique and immersive cultural experience, then make your way to Batu Caves to witness Thaipusam, a colorful festival originally celebrated in South India. Thaipusam is celebrated across Singapore, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia though we are quite sure that nowhere else in the world is the festival celebrated as incredibly as the one in Malaysia.
Thaipusam commemorates the day when Pavarthi, the Hindu Goddess gave her son Lord Murugan a spear called “Vel” to destroy evil demons. The festival brings together millions of Hindu devotees that make a pilgrimage to Batu Caves during the 10th month in the Tamil calendar.
Fun fact: Do you know that 2019 marks the 129th anniversary of Thaipusam celebration at Batu Caves? The festival was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1891.
Thaipusam in Malaysia: 5 facts you should know
When we think of Thaipusam, throngs of devotees clad in bright yellow or orange colors carrying offerings such as milk and kavadis, embellishments made of strings of bells, flowers and peacock feathers, and a carnival-like atmosphere filled with thumping drumbeats and chanting are what come to mind.
But, beyond the colors and lively celebration is a rich cultural legacy that will give deeper insight to travellers on the wonderful diversity of Malaysia. Read on to find out how you can make the most out of this amazing cultural experience.
1. How does Thaipusam get its name?
The “Thai” in Thaipusam (which has nothing to do with Thailand, of course) means “10th” and “pusam” means “when the moon is at its brightest.” Thaipusam is observed annually during the auspicious 10th month in the Tamil calendar on a full moon day. Dates can vary and change year by year because the festival follows a lunar calendar, but it usually takes place between January and February and lasts for three days.
This year, the Thaipusam falls on the 21st of January.
2. What are the offerings that worshippers carry?
You may have seen photos of men carrying elaborately-decorated frames called the kavadi affixed to their bodies using multiple hooks dug into the skin. Kavadis can be anything from a small brass pot of milk to steel frames reaching a weight of around 80 kilogrammes!
At least a week leading up to Thaipusam, male pilgrims bearing the kavadi are required to observe a supreme physical and mental regime. Celibacy, special prayers and a strict vegetarian diet go into the preparation of being a kavadi bearer. It is an act of cleansing oneself and fending off all temptations for luxury and desire. The preparation is said to allow the male pilgrims to purify themselves before their encounter with the Divine.
While the male pilgrims bear the kavadi, women and young pilgrims would carry the paal kudam (milk offering), another popular form of offerings. Usually held on the head using an arm to support the milk pot, the milk (paal) in a pot (kudam) is offered to Lord Murugan through Paal Abhishegam, a Hindu ritual performed by the priest.
3. Why do people pierce their bodies?
The iconic image of Thaipusam is that of male pilgrims with metal skewers and hooks pierced on their backs and spears pricked through their cheeks. Some worshippers have heavy pots and fruits hanging from their bodies with hooks while others bear kavadis elaborately decorated with flowers and peacock feathers.
We are most fascinated by the display of devotion through body piercing. We learn that kavadi bearers enter into a trance-like state known as “arul vaku” with chanting and beats of drums. According to the devotees, the energy of the deity flow through their bodies which enable them to pierce their flesh without feeling much pain.While the kavadi is often perceived as a spiritual practice to surrender sins, some people carry kavadis to make a vow or prayer, whether for recovery from sickness, to wish for a child or for business to prosper.
Did you know: Worshippers who pierce their bodies with sharp objects for Thaipusam are said to shed little or no blood and have reported feeling very little pain. Their wounds have also been said to leave no scars!
4. What happens at the Thaipusam festival?
The procession starts early in the morning at the oldest Hindu temple in the city, Sri Mahamariaman. Worshippers walk barefooted, pull a massive silver chariot containing statues of Lord Murugan and his two consorts, Valli and Deivanai, in a 9.5-mile march to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Batu Caves.
Devotees clad in yellow or orange – the colours significant to Lord Murugan – carry the kavadi or sacrificial offerings as they travel on foot for approximately eight hours. The chariot stops at several points along its journey where coconuts are smashed on the road to symbolize good triumphing over evil.
Upon arrival at Batu Caves, a prayer ceremony is held at the foot of the caves. More than a million devotees carrying their offerings will proceed to make the pilgrimage up the 272 steps to reach the temple in Batu Caves.
Celebrations continue until late into the night.
5. What should first-timers look out for while witnessing Thaipusam?
If you plan to capture Thaipusam in full action this year, plan your transportation and accommodation well ahead of the celebration.
We advise taking public transportation to and fro the venue and spare yourself the headache of getting stuck in traffic congestion and trying to find parking spots (which will be next to impossible). Take the Malayan Railways Limited (KTM) train to Batu Caves and simply walk to the temple.
Expect large crowds ascending and descending the 272 steps of Batu Caves, so you may want to keep a distance from the procession. It’s also best to maintain a safe distance to avoid getting in the way of the devotees.
Kuala Lumpur’s hot and humid weather, plus walking around in a big crowd will seem like a six-hour workout. Keep your body hydrated by bringing water with you.
Brave through the crowd and find small stalls selling mostly local vegetarian food and snacks along the temple. Feast on crispy thosai, a type of flat bread and sip masala tea accompanied by South Indian sweets!
The most important tip is to observe the festival with reverence. Never gawk or laugh at the devotees’ acts of penance, their bizarre piercings and their way of worshipping God. The worshippers are highly respected and honored for their devotion and way of paying homage to Lord Murugan.
Head to Batu Caves for the full experience of Thaipusam
No other part of the world celebrates Thaipusam on a scale as large as Kuala Lumpur’s Thaipusam celebration at Batu Caves.
By now, you would have heard about the batu-iful, colorful facelift that Batu Caves underwent recently. All 272 steps of the staircase leading to Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple have been repainted with a rainbow of colors, taking over the Internet by storm.
At the foot of the Insta-famous staircase is the golden statue of Lord Murugan, towering at a height of nearly 140 feet, making it the second tallest statue of a Hindu deity in the world.
So friends, head over to Batu Caves to experience a fantastic sight of Thaipusam and to get your colorful Instagram shots.
What’s a long weekend without a sweet getaway? Explore away! Our deals are perfect for the upcoming Thaipusam break.