KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (RNS) The Batu Caves temple complex, built at the heart of a great limestone cavern cut in a hill, is usually a quiet place where tourists and worshippers are outnumbered by the monkeys and birds that seem to rule over the area.
But on Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 23 and 24), more than 1 million visitors — both devotees from Malaysia’s large Tamil community and tourists — congregated at the Batu Caves for the Thaipusam festival, one of the country’s biggest Hindu celebrations. The annual festival is held during the month of Thai –- the fifth month in the Tamil calendar — in honor of Lord Murugan, Lord Shiva’s son and adviser, whose shrine lies in the middle of the cave. In Hindu mythology, Murugan has defeated the demon army in order to protect humanity, and Thaipusam celebrates this victory.
The pilgrims taking part in the festival walk in a procession to Murugan’s temple, often performing acts of self-sacrifice during their journey. They carry heavy mobile shrines known as kavadis and pierce their skin with silver skewers or hooks, from which fruits and small bowls of milk are hung as offerings. Pilgrims believe that Murugan will answer their prayers in response to these physical burdens. Some simply carry milk-filled pots, offering them to the god as a sign of gratitude.
A woman’s vow
When a woman who goes by the name of Suguna discovered that her 3-year-old son suffered from asthma, she turned to Murugan, begging for her child’s health. The woman, who declined to give her last name, vowed to take a pilgrimage crawling on her knees every year for Thaipusam, if Murugan granted her wish. Helped by her husband and together with her two children, Suguna climbed on her knees the 272 steep stairs of Batu Caves temple, bringing her gratitude to the god who helped her. The woman’s family encouraged and helped her on each step of the journey.
They chant “Vel-Vel,” a mantra invoking the name of the holy weapon of Murugan with which he defeated the demon army. At the end, Suguna feels that her sacrifice will bring good health and blessings to her whole family.
A heavy burden
Daanish Jegatheswaran is part of a group whose members have been building and carrying kavadis, one of the toughest types of self-mortification, for the last 30 years. Often having their tongue and cheeks pierced by skewers, the worshippers carry metal structures decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and statues of Murugan and other gods.
A few days before Thaipusam, Jegatheswaran, his father and their friends design and build the kavadis. This was the fifth year that Jegatheswaran, 21, carried a kavadi — this year it weighed around 176 pounds.
For the hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees honoring Murugan, this festival is thought to bring peace, good health and blessings. For the crowds of tourists drawn by the colorful festival every year, Thaipusam is an opportunity to understand the concept of “mind over matter.”
(Alexandra Radu is a photojournalist based in Kuala Lumpur)