The Batu Caves sit right on the northern edge of Greater KL, where forested limestone thumbs poke out of a ridge of hills in the suburb of Gombak. In 1891, ten years after the caves were noticed by American explorer William Hornaby, local Indian dignitaries convinced the British administration that the caves were ideal places in which to worship (probably because their geography was reminiscent of the sacred Himalayas). Soon ever-increasing numbers of devotees were visiting the caves to pray at the shrine established here to Lord Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam; later the temple complex was expanded to include a shrine to the elephant-headed deity Ganesh. Although the caves are always packed with visitors, to be honest they’re a little underwhelming – unless, of course, you join the thousands upon thousands of devotees who descend during the annual three-day Thaipusam festival in late January or early February.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Arriving at the site, you’re immediately struck by the immense staircase leading up into the limestone crags, with a gigantic golden statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, to one side; it’s claimed to be the tallest such statue in the world. A number of minor temples stand at ground level, but most visitors head straight up the 272 steps to the caves, pausing only to catch their breath or take photos of the marauding macaques who make their presence all too obvious.
Three quarters of the way up the steps – at step 204, to be precise – a turning on the left leads to a vast side cavern known as the Dark Caves, which can only be visited on a guided tour. Here a 2km-long passageway opens into five chambers populated by a large range of insects and at least three types of bats, which can be distinguished by their faces and calls. The caves also house interesting limestone formations, including several towering flow stones, so called because a continuous sheet of water runs down them.
Subramaniam Swamy Temple
At the top of the main staircase in the Batu Caves, there’s a clear view through to the Subramaniam Swamy Temple, devoted to Lord Subramaniam and another deity, Rama. It’s set deep in a cave around 100m high and 80m long, the walls of which are lined with idols representing the six lives of Lord Subramaniam. Illuminated via the huge void in the cave ceiling beyond another set of steps far inside the caves, the temple has an entrance guarded by two statues, their index fingers pointing upwards towards the light. A dome inside is densely sculpted with more scenes from the scriptures. In a chamber at the back, a statue of Rama, adorned with silver jewellery and a silk sarong, watches over the wellbeing of all immigrants. If you want to look closely at this inner sanctum, the temple staff will mark a small red dot on your forehead, giving you a spiritual right to enter.
Thaipusam at the Batu Caves
The most important festival in the Malaysian Hindu calendar (along with Deepavali), Thaipusam honours the Hindu deity Lord Subramaniam. It’s held during full moon in the month of “Thai” (which in the Gregorian calendar always falls between mid-Jan and mid-Feb), when huge crowds arrive at the Batu Caves. Originally intended to be a day of penance for past sins, it has now become a major tourist attraction, attracting Malaysians and foreigners alike each year.
The start of Thaipusam is marked by the departure at dawn, from KL’s Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, of a golden chariot bearing a statue of Subramaniam. Thousands of devotees follow on foot as it makes its seven-hour procession to the caves. As part of their penance – and in a trance-like state – devotees carry numerous types of kavadi (“burdens” in Tamil), the most popular being milk jugs decorated with peacock feathers placed on top of the head, which are connected to the penitents’ flesh by hooks. Others wear wooden frames with sharp protruding spikes, which are carried on the back and hooked into the skin; trident-shaped skewers are placed through some devotees’ tongues and cheeks. This rather grisly procession has its origins in India, where most of Lord Subramaniam’s temples were sited on high ridges that pilgrims would walk up, carrying heavy pitchers or pots. At Batu Caves, the 272-step climb up to the main chamber expresses the idea that you cannot reach God without expending effort.
Once at the caves, the Subramaniam statue is placed in a tent before being carried up to the temple cave, where devotees participate in ceremonies and rituals to Subramaniam and Ganesh. Things climax with a celebration for Rama, when milk from the kavadi vessel can be spilt as an offering; incense and camphor are burned as the bearers unload their devotional burdens.
Extra buses run to the caves during Thaipusam. Get there early (say 7am) for a good view. Numerous vendors sell food and drink, but it’s a good idea to take water and snacks with you, as the size of the crowd is horrendous.