Pleasure and pain in Malaysia

Thaipusam festival in Malaysia

Taking part in a local festival is very ‘Intrepid’. It embodies everything we love about embracing other cultures and enjoying real life experiences, though as Rachel Nowell discovered, sometimes local celebrations also pose some puzzling questions…

“The sight of a Hindu man with a skewer piercing through his cheek and tongue and bells hanging from skin hooks on his back certainly makes one cringe. But at the same time one is unable to look away for sheer curiosity and amazement. How do they endure the pain? Why do men do this to themselves?

Thaipusam, a 3-day Hindu festival, is celebrated primarily in Singapore and Malaysia on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, which falls around January/February.

One of the best places to witness the spectacle is Batu Caves, just outside Kuala Lumpur. The caves themselves are dedicated to the Hindu Lord Subramanium. The caves are marked by the largest Mugukan statue, with its golden colour glowing in the sun it’s an awe inspiring sight itself. One must climb 272 stairs to enter the caves, which in the almost unbearable heat is by no means easy, it’s a challenge.

Thousands of people flock to the caves during the Thaipusam festival to observe or take part in the religious acts. Fortunate to be in town at the time of this once-a-year festival, I couldn’t resist the urge to set out and witness this unique day of penance and celebration.

Stepping off one of the many buses heading out to the caves, you are instantly hit with the heat, but also many new sights and sounds. Men with freshly shaven heads, nose piercing stalls, the smell of Indian sweets for sale, drums and chanting in the distance and the highlight of the festival, kavadi carriers.

The kavadi carriers give thanks for answered prayers and their misdeeds can be redeemed by various body piercings and skin hooks. They also carry structures on their shoulders, some up to 3 metres high. The kavadi carriers walk miles to the caves like this, closely followed by men who chant, sing and at the regular rest stops splash the kavadi carrier with much needed water and slap their aching legs. Once reaching the caves, the kavadi carriers climb the 272 stairs and back down again. How these men carry these structures, endure physical pain, all while walking barefoot in extreme heat, is astounding.

Inside the caves there are more rituals going on. People everywhere are praying and placing coconut offerings on yellow plastic bags. Meanwhile the monkeys are lurking about, and fishing through the bags for any little goodies to be had. Men are having oranges or bells attached to their hooks, and others are sitting around and appear to be in a trance. I watch one man have his hooks removed, then red powder rubbed onto his back. He remains knelt on the ground while a man places fire into his mouth and he immediately passes out.

Travel certainly opens your eyes to new ideas and different experiences. I loved being a part of the culture of this place, the Thaipusam festival was certainly unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I now see why hundreds of tourists join the thousands of Hindu followers out to the Batu Caves each year.

We can’t help but be curious; we want to see these famous kavadi Carriers and their weird and wild piercings. But after witnessing it for myself I have incredible respect for their devotion and self-control. I still haven’t figured out how they cope with the pain, it truly is amazing what the human body can endure.”

Photo: Thaipusam in Malaysia by Jenny Piche.

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

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