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A Traveller's Guide To Malaysia's Thaipusam Festival

Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Anyone looking for the ultimate cultural experience should consider attending Thaipusam. The colourful South Indian Festival boasts a carnival-like atmosphere as millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves. But with body piercing a significant part of festivities, Thaipusam in Malaysia isn’t for the faint-hearted.

The world’s largest celebration of Thaipusam takes place in Kuala Lumpur. The capital city has a large population of South Indian Tamils who participate in the biggest Thaipusam in Malaysia. People dress in orange and yellow, the colours of Lord Murugan, and make sacrifices in return for answered prayers, forgiveness of sins, and for favours. Sacrifices range from shaving one’s head or carrying a container of milk to piercing the tongue, cheeks and holding a Kavadi. A Kavadi is a large structure that can be several kilograms in weight while reaching up to three or four metres into the air. The structure attaches to the devotee’s skin with needles and skewers. Batu Caves is said to be the holiest Hindu site outside of India and has a 42-metre (138 feet) statue of Lord Murugan at the foot of the steps.

Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip

The religious ceremony

At the bottom of Batu Caves, devotees are worked into a trance-like state by a priest before piercing their body. Those taking part need to follow a strict diet, refrain from alcohol and practice celibacy in the days leading up to Thaipusam. Once the burden is attached, the pilgrimage to the top of the 272 steps begins. Friends and family members often follow behind, chanting prayers and giving encouragement. When the devotee enters Batu Caves, a priest showers them with prayers and before removing the kavadi. Hot ash gets rubbed into the wound to prevent bleeding and scarring. Remarkably, those who join Thaipusam in Malaysia claim to experience little pain because of their trance. Others say the extreme suffering endured is a sign of the body purifying and cleansing itself.

Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip

How to experience Thaipusam in Malaysia

The dates of Thaipusam change each year according to the full moon of the Tamil calendar. Thai is the 10th Tamil month with the full moon falling in either January or February. At 4:00am, a procession starts at Kuala Lumpur’s oldest Hindu temple Sri Mahamariamman in Chinatown. Hindu worshippers bring a golden chariot carrying a statue of Lord Subramanian to Batu Caves, which often arrives around noon. Devotees prepare themselves to carry the Kavadi, or burden, up to Batu Caves. Celebrations and revelry continue until late into the night. Tourists can make their way to Batu Caves by taking the Commuter (KTM) from KL Sentral to the Batu Caves stop and then walk to the start of the festival.

What to expect

More than one millions devotees make the pilgrimage up the 272 steps to reach the temple in Batu Caves. Along with the worshippers, tens of thousands of both local and foreign tourists attend too. Expect congestion from the offset and crowded streets until it ends later in the night. Kuala Lumpur’s weather will be hot, sticky and feel especially stifling in the crowds. When at Batu Caves, prepare for seeing the sights of men heavily burdened with skewers and piercings.

One of the many Kavadi bearers during Malaysia's Thaipusam festival Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip

Warnings

Because of the number of people in a small area, visitors will be exposed to specific risks. Crowds can surge, and mini-stampedes aren’t unheard of. Climbing the steep, narrow steps to Batu Caves might not be a good idea either. As a tourist, consider arriving early to the congestion and traffic and keep a distance from the procession. The devotees carry large objects attached through their flesh; the last thing they want is to be bumped into or disturbed by someone trying to get a photograph. Dehydration and heat stroke are concerns for onlookers too. Anticipate high temperatures and humidity. Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated.

Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip
Irene Navarro / © Culture Trip