Thaipusam Festival, Malaysia, 2021

More than the impressive silhouettes of the iconic Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur, the melting pot of cuisines in Penang, and the glimmering waters of Langkawi Island, Malaysia also infamously plays host to one of the most celebrated and colourful festivals in the world: Thaipusam. It is here you can visually feast on stunning acts of devotion-including pierced devotees carrying large floats, immerse yourself in the exploration of one of the world’s landmark temples, and then, round off the day with soulful Indian food.

What is Thaipusam? 

Thaipusam is a festival celebrated largely by those of Southern Indian descent and, thus, the festival is annual occurrence in cities that house large Tamil communities, including those in South Africa. The festival in Malaysia, however, is famed for being the largest of these, and takes place in the magnificent Batu Caves, where a golden statue of Lord Muruga, the God whom the festival is celebrated in honour of, towers over the landscape. Having attended in both countries, it can be attested that they are extremely different, and is worth attending even having been already in South Africa.

When is it?

The festival date changes every year according to the Lunar calendar and usually occurs in January or February. The main festival day is scheduled to commence in Kuala Lampur on 28 January 2021. On this day, it will be wise to wake up early to head out from the Kuala Lampur city-centre to the outskirts where the temple is based, and get ready for a day of pure awe. 

Swarms of devotees inside the Batu Caves Temple, during Thaipusam 2019

What to Expect 

As your taxi or booked tour cab approaches the Caves, hordes of people clothed in yellow frame the view, and the Lord Muruga statue beams down. The urgent rhythm of drums and feet ecstatically greet you, whilst devotees with facial and bodily piercings dance in a trance. Some dance on shoes with metal spikes protruding from them. Many carry a kavadi, a structure that varies in design throughout the world-some are wooden, and to be carried upon the shoulders, others are designed as metal cages that drape over the body-and others carry offerings of milk, fruit and flowers. These are meant to be offers for Lord Muruga, in exchange for good health, abundant blessings, or as a show of gratitude and devotion. Vendors line the sidewalks, offering to shave heads for a minimal fee and thereafter, douse heads in turmeric paste. The music continues to echo around, whilst eager devotees and tourists alike flock toward the entrance. Upon entering, the sheer magnitude of the statue, as well as the overwhelming mass of people seamlessly blend together and induce an inexplicable feeling of astonishment. Everyone slowly edges their way to the now Insta-famous Batu staircase. After climbing the stairs and exploring the entrancing cave depths, the trip can be ended with the purchase of souvenirs from outdoor vendors and by indulging in an array of vegetarian dishes offered by food stalls.

The Batu Caves

The Batu Caves themselves are a Malaysian attraction, throughout the year. The temple sits on a limestone hill and 272 colourful steps have to be climbed in order to reach the entrance. The interior of the caves house various Hindu deities and idols, although the most famous is the statue on the outside of the caves. The caves are home to large troops of monkeys, that famously roam the venue. The Caves can be accessed via taxi, car, bus and a train service from the KL Sentral.

The Festival is visited by thousands each year, and it’s completely understandable why. Indeed, Thaipusam in Malaysia is a bucket-list item and is expected to return with renewed vigour next year. 

(Also published in thesouthafrican.com)

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