Into the Eye of a Spiritual Storm

Thaipusam is a time for penance, prayer and giving thanks for all that we have. A sacred Hindu festival, it is “celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February). It is mainly observed in countries where there is a significant presence of Tamil communities such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Guadalupe, Reunion, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar“. Thank you Wikipedia.

Every year I make it a point to witness this amazing spectacle of human endurance where mind overcomes all forms of adversity both physical as well as mental. If you’ve never seen it in the flesh, it can be a shocking and disturbing display.

I arrived bright and early in the morning. As I had expected, traffic was already backed up several kilometres from the temple in Batu Caves. People had haphazardly left their cars along the flyover and I just as well did the same upon finding the first available empty space. Two thumbs up for the local cops for directing traffic and keeping the peace in an orderly manner. Despite rumours of terrorist attacks and bomb threats, there was no indication of anything sinister or impending danger as I walked shoulder to shoulder with the massive crowds making their way to the temple. Patrol cars and armed police personnel were visible and vigilant at all times.

With well over a million visitors expected over the 2 day event, I can certainly vouch for these numbers as it was packed all the way in and all the way out with just about enough room to inch your way around the temple compound. I watched in awe as devotees made their way down the final ramp that leads to the temple gates. Many with heavily decorated kavadis with spikes piercing their bodies while the women folk dressed in bright yellow carried silver jugs full of milk on their heads. Some had piercings through their cheeks and others through their tongues.

The procession started on the evening before at the Sri Mariamman Temple in downtown KL. Having walked several kilometres barefoot in the heat and burning sun they arrive at Batu Caves on the brink of exhaustion. Taking frequent breaks along the way to rest their weary legs, time and again they are able to muster enough courage and strength to get up and dance to the infectiously melodic beats drummed out by their entourage of dhol players. It’s enough to put you in the mood as well and you soon forget where you are joining in with the festivities. It’s mesmerising.

You may wonder how this is all possible without shedding a drop of blood. In the run up to Thaipusam, “devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Lord Murugan. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and takes only pure, Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God. On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens)“. I believe there’s a higher power at work here too.

Entering the temple gates you can’t miss the towering golden statue of Lord Murugan up against the backdrop of the lush green limestone hill behind while the stairway leading up to the temple is filled with a sea of people making their way up. There’s a lot happening in the temple grounds too, food and drink stalls and lots of goodies on sale. Like a carnival there are loads of activities going on especially for young children and their families.

As Kavadis arrive at the base of the stairway, I can only imagine the daunting prospect devotees now have, climbing up 272 steps which are almost at a 45° angle. It’s the final leg of this long and arduous journey of spiritual sacrifice. Many appear to falter midway with their heavy kavadis but the crowds cheer them on relentlessly chanting “Vel Vel“. This show of support and encouragement by well wishers appears to fuel an inner fire and once again they pick themselves up and continue the trek up the steep stairway. It was heart-warming and dramatic. Call it what you like but its sheer determination and a healthy dose of spiritual intervention that gets them going again and again until they finally reach the top.

I made it halfway up the steps to take in the panoramic view of the temple grounds. A flock of birds zigzag across the deep blue skies as they soar high up and around the hillsides. There are thousands of people as far as the eye can see. I stood fixated on this scene before my eyes. It was magical.

I may not have visited Batu Caves today for prayer or penance but the air of spirituality that was radiating from all the souls who were there showered a wealth of blessings on me. I was in the eye of this spiritual storm for a few fleeting moments. Leaving Batu Caves I felt sanctified.

The Roving Photographer
24th Jan 2016

PS. I left this for postscript and as much as I dislike saying this, foreigners, especially those from Western countries, who visit places of worship in Malaysia or anywhere in Asia for that matter, should dress appropriately. Just as you would not turn up for Sunday Mass in a skimpy pair of hot pants or your beach wear, do exercise common sense (which was sorely lacking) and a courtesy for local cultures when visiting places such as these in a foreign land. Ignorance is not bliss. The Gods could have been distracted by your stupidity today.

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