Malaysia is a wonderfully culturally diverse, but rapidly changing country, with massive economic and infrastructural growth in recent years. It was really pleasant, therefore, a few years ago, to find a place where traditions still flourish, so close to Kuala Lumpur. Every year the local Hindu community celebrates a festival called Thaipusam, early in the calendar year, around the full moon.
The festival is a celebration to the Hindu Deity Lord Murugan and takes place in and around the Batu caves.
Devotees spend over two weeks fasting, drinking only sugar cane juice to cleanse their bodies, then on the day pay penance in ways that have to be seen to be believed. Kadavis, decorated structures bearing images of their deity are borne on shoulders, and Pal Kodum pots of milk are balanced on their heads as they walk from the nearby river towards the steps that lead to the caves. Many will pierce their cheeks and tongues with long metal skewers, whilst others hang limes and miniature Pal Kodum pots from their backs and chests, suspended on chains attached through their skin by fishhooks.
In the oppressive heat of the day the fasting and excitement takes its toll and family members are on hand when their eyes roll up and they stumble. Stools are placed under them to rest before stumbling forward towards the mighty staircase that leads into the lofty caves. The climb is long and claustrophobic, and once inside the eyes adjust n the darkness to see devotees dancing around fires and only then can the penance end and items removed from their bodies. As the tongue and cheek piercings are removed their trance-like state seems to evaporate, smiles are restored and the celebration continues.
Although it might appear somewhat confronting it was a fascinating and exciting day.