Wow, what an event. We had heard about Thaipusam from some travelers in Sumatra, and also in Penang. We knew that it was a big event with about 1 million devotees celebrating in Kuala Lumpur. Commonly known for the visually impressive piercing aspect of the festival, we were amazed by the whole event, which is more than just intense piercing.
Kuala Lumpur (known as KL) is a nice, modern city with a good light rail system. Like most of Malaysia, KL has a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay culture. We had a room reserved in Chinatown, which is near the main Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Jason stumbled on the beginning of Thaipusan after some time in an internet cafe late at night. The beginning was marked with an elaborately decorated silver chariot carrying an idol of the god Murugan leaving the temple and heading for the Hindu shrines at the Batu Caves, about 10 kilometers away. Hindu devotees follow the chariot through the night, often carrying a jug of milk on their heads or taking a vow of silence throughout the process. The stairs up to the Batu caves entrance provide an intense final ascent for the long procession, especially for those with heavy kavadis who have been walking in the heat for a long time.
Thaipusam is a celebration popular in the Tamil areas of India, and the Tamil population of Malaysia. Murugan is a Hindu deity associated with war and is considered the patron deity of the Tamil Nadu. Thaipusan is a celebration of his birthday and when he received a spear to vanquish a demon. Devotees carry kavadis, which means something like “burden”. Simple kavadis are the jugs of milk, which people bring to the shrines at the Batu caves as an offering to Murugan. Others participate in weeks of purification (meditating, celibacy, and a simple vegetarian diet) before the event, and then piercing of the flesh. Many commonly pierce the mouth with a long skewer, and others carry elaborate kavadis with chains attached to hooks piercing their flesh but some simply shave their heads and make vows before setting out in the procession.
We saw people of all ages participate in this massive festival. From the most to elaborate kavadi with incredible body piercings to the youngest child dressed up and tired from the long walk and trying to keep the offering of milk on their heads, we were struck by the support everyone gave each other. All the massively pierced people were surrounded by supporters who helped them along the way (sometimes physically with water, a chair to rest on, help with the kavadi) and celebrants drumming or chanting to mentally help them with their burdens. Many of the heavily pierced people were in trances. The trance states seemed most intense as people ascended the stairs with their burdens. It was amazing to see to many people carrying these various burdens and then those who were there to support them. When the hooks were removed, they covered their backs with ash. There was little or no blood coming out of the little holes. Even with the hooks in, there was no blood.
This is a huge festival, and other Malaysians (Muslims and Chinese) help out their Hindu counterparts with gifts of food and drink to help them along this arduous procession. Next week will be Chinese New Year, where the Chinese will take center stage. We also met up with some Polish friends we met in Laos. They have some awesome photos as well, you can see a link to their blog “Ola and Misiek” on the right.
Petronas Twin Towers
The Petronas Twin towers (about 1,480 feet tall) are a prominent landmark in Kuala Lumpur and held the worlds record for the tallest building when originally completed in 1998. Due to the subsurface conditions where half of the original site had a much greater depth to bedrock than the other side and could have resulted in the building footings settling and leaning to one side over time, the site for the project had to be shifted and the building was built with some of the deepest foundations ever used in construction. The new location had relatively level bedrock, but it was at a depth of about 390 feet, and the porous quality of the bedrock required additional conditioning for another 100 feet in order to support the massive weight of the structure. The end result required total foundation work to a depth of about 490 feet!