Malaysia’s largest Hindu public celebration is a visual spectacle.
Each full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (mid-January to mid-February), Malays and tourists flock to the Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur to witness the country’s biggest Hindu public display, Thaipusam. A time to show thanks to Lord Shiva’s son Murugan, the festival is about faith, stamina, and penance.
Devotees – often in a state of trance – climb the 272 steps to Murugan’s shrine, many with painful, if spectacular-looking, piercings as an outward sign of devotion and appreciation for wishes fulfilled. Some carry offerings of milk pots hooked to their flesh, while others pierce their cheeks, tongues, and other body parts with entire frameworks of spikes – the spiritual trance apparently keeping them free from pain.
More than a million people attend the festival which, with its chariot-led procession, chanting, and musicians, exudes a carnival-like atmosphere. There, the faithful perform rituals before a huge golden statue of Murugan. For visitors, it’s a chance to experience an ancient celebration firsthand, explore Kuala Lumpur – a sultry city embracing modernity and tradition – and, in keeping with the aim of the festival, return to their lives refreshed.