Thaipusam: A Sacred Festival

by Audrey Lim, Mar 7, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

Having grown up with Thaipusam Day being a holiday, it didn't really seemed like such an important occasion to me except for the fact that I can sleep in and not have to go to school or work (as in the case these days). But I have obviously missed the main point of this celebration.

Thaipusam is actually a very interesting festival that is widely celebrated throughout Malaysia and Singapore. Usually, Thaipusam is celebrated sometime around the last week of January or the first week of February. With all the devotees gathering for this special occasion in both countries, none can beat the elaborate affair that takes place annually in Kuala Lumpur. This 3-day festival will start off at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown district. From there, the devotees and the entire procession will make their way towards Batu Caves, which is like 13 kilometers towards the north of the city.

During this exciting event, you will be able to see at least close to one million visitors flocking to Batu Caves in the state of Selangor over a three-day period. Within that group, at least about 50,000 Hindu devotees will be doing the procession and escorting a statue of Lord Maruga (also known as Lord Subramaniam) from the temple of Sri Maha Mariamman to Batu Caves. With the atmosphere of festivities thick in the air, visitors will be able to witness the devotees as they work themselves up into a spiritual frenzy. The must-see event is when the devotees perform acts of self-mutilation and body piercing. Having done that, the devotees will then drag and carry heavy weights and other ornately decorated structures using various pierced parts of their bodies. These structures are known as kavadis. However, things are not merely as simple as explained. In fact, this whole spiritual journey takes place a month before Thaipusam. During the past month, devotees must go through a cleansing process in order to prepare themselves for the feats of endurance. This cleansing process involves the denial of alcohol, tobacco and sex. They must also meditate regularly. Amazingly, these self-mutilations cause no pain and leave no scars, and all these mutilations are done in honor of the Lord Maruga. Devotees can choose to honor the Lord for having taken care of their health throughout the year, or even thank him for the birth of a child. As part of the reasoning behind Thaipusam, Hindus believed it is a must for them to offer their thanksgiving to Lord Maruga or bad luck will befall them.

If you are a foreign visitor to the country, pay attention to certain times and hours of the day for if you are not aware of them, you might just miss out on the fun parts of Thaipusam. For starters, the procession begins from Chinatown at about 2 in the morning, a day before the actual designated public holiday of Thaipusam. The whole procession ends at 9 in the morning the day after the public holiday. The fun does not end there. After the procession has gone back to Chinatown, the celebrations continue into the evening of the third day. However, the best fun takes place during the eve of Thaipusam until the break of dawn. As a designated public holiday, this holiday is only applicable to states with large Indian populations such as the state of Selangor, Perak, Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Johor.

And of course, what is a Thaipusam experience if you do not bring your camera/camcorder to capture the exciting moments? Almost as exciting (and far more real) as watching "Ripley's Believe It or Not" on TV, Thaipusam is a day where pain is forgotten, endurance is tops and spiritual level is at max! This is definitely not a day for the faint-hearted. Devotees are okay if you take their pictures, however, it is better if you are modestly dressed while avoiding clothes like short skirts or really short shorts. In terms of food, only vegetarian meals are available.

While enjoying yourself during this sacred festival, feast your eyes also on the other fascinating sights at Batu Caves. Batu Caves is an interesting landmark that includes a subterranean art gallery with wall paintings and other depictions of Hindu statues. It is also home to many nocturnal animals. Because some of these animals are so rare, it is a must to obtain the permission of the Malaysian Nature Society before you can visit the reserve.

As Batu Caves is located very near to Kuala Lumpur, do take advantage to visit the city if you can. There are numerous city mosques, markets, temples and lovely gardens. The buildings scattered around the heart of the bustling city bears the mark from the British colonial days.

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Visitor Information:

Getting There
It is not very far to walk from the Sri Maha Mariamman temple to Batu Caves, however it is also not that near. Unless you are used to walking long distance, it is better to catch the special Thaipusam shuttle bus that goes between Central Market and Batu Caves. The bus runs for 24-hours throughout the festival. If you are driving, do take Jalan Ipoh (Ipoh Road) from the city center and then turn off at the sign that says Batu Caves. The bus ride cost about USD0.40 although I am not sure if there is an increase in price.

Where to Stay
Because Batu Caves is in its natural environment, you won't be able to get an accommodation there. However, you may stay at any of the available hotels in Kuala Lumpur. There are the high-end options to choose from and there are also budget motels for backpackers. Do a little research before coming in to Kuala Lumpur and you could get yourself a good deal. Be aware that some hotels are a little sleazier than others, so unless you do not mind strange sounds coming from the next room, it is better to check out the available options before settling for any one hotel/motel.

There are no "entry fee" to witness a Thaipusam festival. All you need is accommodation and you are on for the adventure of your life!

Other Events
Aside from Kuala Lumpur, Thaipusam is also celebrated in other parts of the country such as in the city of Ipoh at the Siva Subramaniam Temple, Johor Bahru at the Sri Thandayuthabani Temple, Penang at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple and in Singapore at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple.

Similarly, on the island of Phuket (Thailand), there is an annual Vegetarian Fair that takes place during the 9th lunar month. Here, nothing is eaten except vegetables. An 8-day affair, the taking of vegetarian meals will help cleanse their bodies from illness. Just like Thaipusam, observers practiced body mutilation and carry their procession throughout the town as well.

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