Thaipusam: a guide to Kuala Lumpur's biggest Hindu festival

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This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

Location: Batu Caves, outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Date: full moon day in the 10th Tamil month of Thai (mid-January to mid- February) – for 2013, it is on 27 January

Level of participation: 1 – watch the pain from the sidelines

Batu Caves. Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia. Thaipusam'IMG_5514' by beggsCreative Commons Attribution

Related article: Festivals of the world: where to go in February

The most spectacular Hindu festival in Malaysia is a wild orgy of seemingly hideous body piercings, marking the day when Lord Shiva’s son, Murugan, was given a lance to vanquish three demons. The greatest sight is the kavadi carriers, the devotees who subject themselves to seemingly masochistic acts as fulfilment for answered prayers. Many of the faithful carry offerings of milk in paal kudam (milk pots) often connected to their skin by hooks. Even more striking are the vel kavadi – great cages of spikes that pierce the skin of the carrier and are decorated with peacock feathers, pictures of deities, and flowers. Some penitents go as far as piercing their tongues and cheeks with hooks, skewers and tridents. While it looks excruciating, a trance-like state stops participants from feeling pain; later the wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.

Essentials: only the truly faithful should attempt the ritual – insufficiently prepared devotees keep doctors especially busy over the festival period with skin lacerations.

Local attractions: at the Batu Caves you’ll find monkeys scaling the towering limestone outcrop, and you can climb the 272 steps into Temple Cave, the vast main cavern, where there’s an enormous golden statue of Murugan.

More info: Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (www.tourism.gov.my)

See more festivals in February here.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was refreshed in January 2013.