080122084524.jpg   The large statue next to the 272 steps leading up to the Batu Caves.

Thaipusam, a Hindu festival to honor devotion to the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan, was celebrated in Malaysia on January 23 this year.  Devotees ask the deity for a favor, offer atonement or give thanks for a granted prayer.  The worshippers prepare for Thaipusam through fasting and prayer in the 40 days leading up to the festival.  On the day of the festival, devotees shave their heads and make a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves which is 15 km outside of Kuala Lumpur. The Batu Caves house a temple which is dedicated to Lord Murugan.  Devotees will climb the 272 steps to reach the temple and place their “kavadi” or burden at the feet of the deity’s statue.  



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Once pilgrims reach the site of the caves, they will show their devotion in different ways.  Many will bear a kavadi which could be a simple pot of milk carried on their heads.  The kavadis vary in size and weight.  Smaller versions consist of a small temple with a rod that is carried on the shoulders.  Many devotees pierce their tongues, cheeks or foreheads with small spears. The largest kavadis can be up to 2 meters (6 feet) high which are held on their heads and then attached to the body with 108 hooks piercing the skin!  Some devotees walk on fire, practice flagellation and pull a kavadi cart attached by hooks in his back. 


Needless to say this is not a festival for those with a weak stomach.  After living in Kuala Lumpur for three and a half years, I decided that it was time to go and witness this festival first hand.  My husband, children and I set off with our good friend and local guide, Lucas, and fourteen other teachers.  I was leery and expecting chaos, strange rituals, horrific masochistic feats and lots of blood. 


What I found was a spiritual air where families frolicked in the river, vendors sold their wares, and children shrieked with laughter. Most people were dressed in yellow sari-type robes with shaved heads.  As we walked through the grounds, barbers in tents shouted out to us to get our heads shaved, people smiled at us or giggled as we hurriedly snapped pictures so as not to offend.  However as the evening progressed, we realized that nobody was bothered by our presence or our picture snapping, they were proud of their sacrifice and burdens! 


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It was a happy and spiritual atmosphere as family members gathered around their loved ones to organize for the final pilgrimage up the steps in the blistering tropical heat of the evening.  Lucas led us through the crowds down to the river in the foothills of the caves where families participated in ritual bathing.  We saw men, women and children carrying milk pots and smaller kavadis toward the steps.  Then we sighted the huge kavadis and meandered down to where the devotees were getting ready.   



The men who were readying to carry the enormous kavadis were surrounded by family and friends.  We watched with open amazement as one devotee who was shaved, bathed and in a deep trance began to don his kavadi.  Singers and drummers in colorful costumes beat their drums and belted out trance inducing songs to keep the devotee focused.  His eyes were rolled back into his head at some points but otherwise staring straight ahead with a look of total determination and love.  It was a powerful ritual to witness.  Men chanted and blew the smoke of incense into his face as the 6-foot kavadi was placed on his head.  More chanting, incense, drumming and words of encouragement were made as the 108 hooks pierced through the flesh on his chest and back.   


The devotee wobbled on his stool under the strain of the heavy temple, but never once did the man cry out or flinch in pain!  Not an ounce of blood was spilled as the hooks were inserted and then the spears were poked lovingly through his cheeks and tongue.  The drummers took up a more fevered beat and the man rose and began a jovial dance.  He jumped up and down as the enormous statue on his head bobbed and wavered.  The hooks strained against his body, but a look of spiritual bliss was all that was visible on his face as he communicated with his god.  He began to slowly dodge his way through the crowd toward his final destination, the statue of Lord Murugan in the caves at the top of the 272 steps!  His coaches, family members, the band and tourists followed his elated progress through the crowds to cheers of delight.   

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We observed many more men carrying elaborate and enormous kavadis.  Couples who had babies carried their beloved bundle slung in a yellow cloth hung on a pole shouldered between the blessed parents.  Young children skipped alongside their parents carrying pots of milk or honey on top of their proud shaven heads.  One man sat in an enormous chair of spiked nails and alternately slammed himself into the chair and gave blessings to other devotees as they passed him. People had fruits hanging from their flesh by hooks and others carried burning oil in clay pots!  


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It was an amazing night that filled me with wonder, bewilderment, awe and memories that will last a lifetime.  If you are ever in KL in January/February, this is a festival and experience not to be missed!  Thaipusam is a Tamil tradition observed mostly in Southern India, but festivals can be observed in Singapore, Malaysia and Mauritius.  Have you ever witnessed Thaipusam?  Share your experiences with me. 


As I sit here writing this I hear the first crackles and booms of firecrackers and the beating of drums and cymbals.  It is the first day of Chinese New Year and a neighbor is having a lion dance!  I must go now and hear the rhythmic drums of another culture beat their way into memories in my mind.  It is another exciting holiday season in Malaysia! 



  1. Shellee said,

    March 18, 2008 at 5:03 am

    Hi Global Annie,

    I couldn’t find an email address, so I’m writing this as a comment. I’d like you to share your experiences and wisdom on a site that is designed for women to connect across the globe. It is women networking to change the world and it is called

  2. annie said,

    January 24, 2011 at 8:00 am

    hi…happy thaipusam day

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