Night 41, Monday, 06 Feb, Kuala Lumpur – Thaipusam Festival
As at least one person has probably guessed, I have been really avoiding trying to write this post as I just don’t know how to document in written form the experience that was attending Thaipasum (TP) at Batu Caves (BC) at night.
I wrote notes on the night to capture some of it, but it is now four days later and I am in Singapore. I picked myself up a (relatively speaking) cheap bottle of Shiraz and have some sounds cranking so hopefully the words will fly. I am hoping that my pictures have captured a tiny bit of the essence and intensity of the night, but I am no National Geographic photographer !
TP is a Hindu festival, primarily celebrated by the Tamil people, though each year there are more and more people of other races celebrating and this was quite obvious in KL with many Malay and Chinese people actively involved. The festival is celebrated in a number of centres but one of the biggest is at BC in KL, with well over a million people attending over the four days. The eve of the first day and the first day are the two most popular times. To save me some time describing the history, here is the wiki….
Right, back to the beginning of the night, which is roughly 7.00 PM, and lets crack straight into my daily whinge, it seems there is always one, and as usual it is going to follow a similar path – information ! Information on the festival is surprisingly sparse on the internet as well as locally. Much as I really liked the hostel guys they were totally useless when it came to information on anything, I would have thought they would have the details on such a major festival (and public holiday) that starts less than a km away !!! . Surprisingly most of the other travellers in the hostel were not interested in it, so they were not much use either – why do people visit foreign countries with no interest in their culture ?
The festival starts with a parade from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, just up the road from the hostel and ends at BC about 15km away. The parade kicks off around 12.30 am on the eve of the festival. I was not expecting vast hoards on the street at 7 pm so was patient. Over the next three hours I went out numerous times and saw nothing on the street. At 11.30 PM two other guys from the hostel were heading out with a plan to stay out so I asked if I could join them and off we went. Mike from Canada and Giovanni from (you guessed it) Italy and I wandered up to the temple and it was still closed and dark, not a great sign. As we were standing around wandering what to do a car pulled up, I went over and asked the Indian driver what time the parade left, he said it had – 23 hours ago…. Apparently the parade does start on the eve of the festival, just really really early on the eve. (Tip for anyone going in the future – you need to be there 24 hours before the official start date !). He also told us to head up to BC as there will be plenty happening, he also told us the train was running 24 hours a day during the festival.
We shot back to the hostel so I could grab my camera and some water and then hit the streets again to walk to the station, as we arrived on the main street near the station we found a bus with BC written on it so jumped on board, we were the only passengers. After waiting for a while we found that the bus doesn’t actually go to the caves until it is completely full. The bus finally left and did a few laps of little India and little China as we got increasingly twitchy. Eventually we stopped outside a closing restaurant and a busload of very ‘happy’ Hindu men piled on board and we were off !
We arrived close to BC about 12.30 am, the traffic was appalling and after a while of virtually not moving and BC well within site I got up and walked to the front of the bus and said we wanted to walk, this seemed to start a rush and we all got off the bus into a heaving throng of scooters, barely moving cars and throngs of people heading in all directions at once, scores of people had plastic horns and the night air was a blast of noise. I know it kind of sounds like going to Eden Park on the train to see the All Blacks play a test against the Aussies but it wasn’t anything like that at all
We followed the crowd that was heading into the site and soon found ourselves packed into a massive scrum of happy, smiling people, lots and lots of men, but numerous family groups and many dressed in what was their finest dress. The three of us are all quite tall so stood out like sore thumbs in the crowd. Before we left I was a bit concerned that some would see us as voyeurs to their special, holy moment and we would be made to feel unwelcome, but this was so far from my experience, a lot of people smiled, waved and said hello and seemed so pleased that we were interested in their celebrations. We spoke to many people over the night, got some good viewing tips (would never have ended up by the river without being told to go there) and people were so keen to hear what we thought of the event and our experience, one of so many things I found humbling.
Our first viewing point was almost opposite the entrance to the temple area, and it was heaving with people, being quite tall we sort of had some sort of view of the proceedings. The devotees come from numerous start points around the site but all come down one final section of road into the temple grounds.
It was very hard to take photos here, quite dark but lots of bright lights to throw exposures off, and well, it wasn’t if I was going to set up a tripod and ask people to stand still for a long exposure ! flash was used on occasion. We soon saw a number of devotees coming through with their kavadi (offering). As you would have read in the wiki (you did read it didn’t you ?) these can take many forms, and the first of these huge feathered towers (I can think of no more apt description) came past.
It was quite warm – a woman collapsed in front of me from the heat, but we all formed a circle around her, someone produced some water and someone else a fan and she was soon helped up and off – I am so glad I am six foot and reasonable access to air. These men were carrying a large, completely top heavy, weight, with hooks piercing their skin, in this heat and for hours. We were watching the parade for an hour and it moved less than 50 metres.
Finally I managed to get close enough to get a couple of shots of one of the devotees with hooks, which to put my voyeuristic hat on, was what I was there for.
After an hour in the throng we decided to move further up the road way, as were passing through one of the many small areas where families were sleeping the night a man stopped us for a chat and pointed out a spot we should head to down by the river, where the men are blessed and the hooks and skewers are done. He was so pleased to find that three strangers from three different continents had come together to visit his people’s festival in his continent. The atmosphere was amazing, I know my photos do not show it at all, but there was a real feel of joy and celebration in the air.
We walked down what appeared to be a motorway onramp which had a mix of devotees who were heading to the preparation area.
And some on their walk.
When I saw this group approaching I jumped over the mid-lane barrier in the motorway to get some closer shots, others were there and no-one seemed to mind and I ended up being extremely close, I didn’t want to offend by taking a million shots, so snapped a few and left. But I was very close, I could feel the intensity from these men, the shared pain and purpose, the devotion, it was unlike anything I have experienced before and I really cannot describe it at all. I have never seen or head anything like it in the flesh before. It was just amazingly intense, powerful, alien, but also full of life, of celebration. It looks painful, and you could see pain in their eyes and in their bodies, but mostly you could feel pride, I won’t say joy – maybe celebration is more apt… When I crossed back to Mike and Giovanni I was almost shaking with the experience.
We carried on down the road until we reached a smallish area partially under the on-ramp and by the canal, it was utterly heaving with people and this area encapsulated the TM experience. It was complete sensory overload, with every sense being assaulted all at the same time, it was confusing, it was extremely intense it was everything.
Imagine every sense being battered at once – a number of the devotees had a drumming group and leader who would lead a chant and there were a large number of seemingly independent groups going as well. As we were all jammed together it was a cacophony of sound, like being at a rock festival and having five stages playing around you all at once, somehow it all made sense. Adding to the noise were a number of supporters blasting toots from the ubiquitous (and eventually very annoying) plastic horns. Each devotee had a small shrine with incense burning and a number had small fires going, so there was a good layer of smoke rolling through the site. It was so packed that we were constantly jammed up against the people around us and none of the people around us looked like us, or us them, and they didn’t mind at all. And finally the sights – just so much, colour, action, scenes so un-western that you didn’t know where to look. Every sense was in action, almost overwhelming, very intense, very powerful, very alien.
A small group of women were making garlands, I am not sure how they weren’t crushed.
A devotee being hooked up.
We watched this guy preparing for his walk for a long time. He was part of a small group, they danced, they hugged, he blessed some of his supporters. The intensity of their preparations, which include fasting, special diets among other activities over the preceding days puts the devotees into an elevated space, the look in their eyes is just the most amazing thing, they call members of their entourage out and bless them and the fervour passes on, sorry I cannot describe it adequately at all, but it was amazing. This man had a very slow and special walk he undertook as his devotion.
These guys were in the same group
My fave shot… there was something massively primal in this hug, you could feel it from ten feet away.
It was soon almost 4.00 Am and we were hungry and tired so decided to head back into town and the hostel. We wandered back past the entrance to BC and it was still packed so changed direction and aimed for the train station, which we discovered was not running!
To get across the tracks we followed a crowd and climbed up the side of a locked over bridge, squeezed through the fence, crossed the tracks, then through another fence to drop down on to the road on the other side. This just added to the whole radicalness of the experience for me, loved it ! We found our way to a bus and got to bed about 4.30…
So, what did I think ?
The most intense thing I have done, ever. Words cannot describe it. There were a lot of people, hundreds of thousands – and I would have seen maybe a dozen other westerners. It was loud, it was full of smells, it was close and tight and I was constantly banging into people, the scenes were amazing, the ‘feel’ was one of celebration, of a shared pain and a shared joy. It was utterly alien to my wee sheltered New Zealand world.
On the bus on the way in I was – hmm, scared is not the right word, but almost. This put me into so many places I don’t like, and the crazy thing was I think I was the least concerned of all of us when we arrived. So rising above my own discomfort and enjoying the festival for what it really is, a huge celebration of the human spirit, where race and wealth or caste seemed to irrelevant and celebration was the order of the day (or night in this case).
It was fucking awesome ! and I am so utterly glad I went – I almost didn’t, so thanks Mike and Giovanni !
PS. Excuse the swearing mum.