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.

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