Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur

The world is an awe-inspiringly bizarre place, and its people are utterly, charmingly insane.

IMG_1937When we’re not busy blowing each other up, getting overly judgmental about which representation of the divine we prefer, valuing things over humans and otherwise being jackasses…we are really, really interesting and cool.


Case in point: Thaipusam

Pronounced “TIE-poo-sum,” it’s one of the more important Tamil holidays of the year, ranking just behind Deepvali. Because a surprising number of Hindu legends read like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, the festival celebrates when Shiva created the hero Skanda to lead the celestial Deva forces against the demonic Asuras. Tamil Hindus observe Thaipusam by praying and giving sacrifices to Murugan, divine vanquisher of evil, to their bad traits and bad fortune can be destroyed.

These sacrifices are typically of milk, carried on a pilgrimage to a nearby temple. For the temple at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, that pilgrimage is 9 miles long and made by around a million people.

Another quarter million or so come to observe, support or run vending stalls along the route. If the entire event declared independence, the population would be larger than 20% of the world’s countries. It’s a big deal, and it was happening two hours north of our home in Melaka.

IMG_1899So we got in the car. Specifically, we drove up the night before and got a hotel with (a) a generous parking policy and (b) a location within walking distance of the Batu Caves.

IMG_1904In the morning, we were glad of our park-and-walk decision before we’d covered one of the three kilometers to the temple site. Cars were parked and abandoned in the middle of the roads, just sitting there in the median lane. They got thicker as we got closer, and our little foursome soon joined a loose tide of tourists and penitents all bound for the event.

Let’s talk a little bit about those penitents. Most of them carry jugs or pots of milk, which they’ll carry 9 miles, then up a loooooong flight of stairs, and deliver at the temple in the cave at the top. But a few of them go the extra mile.

In this context “go the extra mile” means “pierce your body in a variety of ways and/or carry an extremely heavy display of peacock feathers and metal the entire length of the journey.”

IMG_1934So there we were: me on point with Gabe on my shoulders, Bev and DJ forming a triangle behind, close pressed on all sides by a crowd of onlookers from eight countries I was able to confirm (plus a German and an Australian — I didn’t meet any of either, but there’s always at least one). We were in the middle lane, with the rest of the well wishers, tourists and general carriers on. To our left were those simply carrying the milk. To our right…

01ThaipusamAs the procession neared the entrance to the temple complex, we passed through a village of food stalls and shops. A news crew stood on the roof to the East and energetic Hindi music thundered from the speakers on the right. Our line moved forward one step every three or four minutes. The milk bearers moved more slowly, while the pierced and burdened in the fast lane alternated between marching swiftly along, dancing to the beat or resting on stools brought along by various members of the supporting cast.

I had just climbed the first three of the 272 steps to Batu Caves when the music changed over to the Star Wars theme.

Let me write that again.

I had just climbed the first three of the 272 steps to Batu Caves when the music changed over to the Star Wars theme.

It stayed on Star Wars for ten minutes or so, then cycled back to the traditional dance music. Meanwhile, I climbed 272 steps with a 50 pound kid on my shoulders who kept wanting to turn around and look down at the crowd stretching behind us for miles into the city. We did ultimately reach the top and enter the Caves themselves.IMG_1973

Things opened up a bit and the crowding level downgraded from “so close we would be legally married in 22 countries, but not this one” to “I had no idea this part of a person smelled like that.” The vibe in the Caves was also different.

The Caves are the destination of the pilgrimage, so in addition to the two lines of people heading to the temple proper — located at the center of the next chamber in — we were among finished pilgrims resting on the floor. Those who had piercings were being doctored physically and spiritually, surrounded by their families. Most pilgrims were eating plain foods and drinking lots of water (fasting in the days before Thaipusam is another part of the pilgrimage process).

We almost didn’t go to the second chamber. It meant passing through a choke point where the crowd upgraded to “probably married in 30 countries, possibly including this one.” But we soldiered through and were rewarded with two gifts.

Gift One: the second chamber has a hole in the top, allowing beams of sunlight to warm and illuminate one of the most astonishing grottoes I’ve personally seen. Even with the massive crowd and its attending litter everywhere, I could see instantaneously why this had become a holy site.IMG_1951

Gift Two: Monkeys!!! A tribe of medium-sized monkeys lives in the upper reaches of the cave walls. Because they know tourists have food, they come down and eat the leftovers, which people toss to a ledge at about head level on the east wall of the cave. The well-fed critters scamper for the food, then run up the wall to eat it.


I’m old enough now to understand that there are very few objective, no-exceptions truths. People who believe otherwise, just haven’t been enough places or done enough things to learn better. But I’ll tell you right now one of the capital-T Truths I’ve learned in my travels.

Monkeys are awesome.

We stayed on site, ate our lunch and watched the primates run around being monkeys. Eventually, we joined the crowded line to pass through the Caves, down the stairs and out into the city. The Star Wars theme took its turn in the rotation twice during our descent.

Thaipusam: a million people celebrating a chance for a new beginning by paying homage a legend about the Goddess of Death and Change conjuring up a celestial badass to lay down some smack on demons, observed by safety-pinning offerings to a penitent’s back so he can walk nine miles and climb 272 stairs and remove in a cave while somebody plays Star Wars music in the background.

The world is an awe-inspiringly bizarre place, and its people are utterly, charmingly insane.

I am so happy to be a part of both.



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