The night is sticky and smells of sandalwood and sweat. I inch the door of Kaviarasu’s Proton a quarter of the way open—as far as it will go amidst the tight pack our of makeshift stall—and shimmy out. Kavi is dressed in loose yellow, both shorts and a t-shirt. He fingers a few dirty polymer bills to the bearded man sitting on the corner.
“Hold on to me so you don’t get lost.” He takes my right hand and places it, palm down, on his shoulder. We take a few steps along the cracked concrete of this makeshift parking lot and are sucked up into the sea of pilgrims heading toward the caves.
I’d first learned about Thaipusam two years earlier. I was on the balcony of an eco-lodge in Bukit Lawang - a river-side town on the southern end of Northern Sumatra’s Leuser ecosystem. Spiced bandrik stung my lips as a mud-slicked couple walked up and dropped their packs. She was from Spain; he, Argentina. I did my best to insert myself into their rapid-fire Spanish conversation. They had been in Sumatra for two weeks and had seen the orangutans that morning—alongside white-faced gibbons, monitors, and langur—after camping upstream. Tonight, they would catch a minibus back the Medan and in the morning fly to Kuala Lumpur for Thaipusam, a local festival where Tamil worshippers drove metal rods through their own flesh as a gift to God.
The festival—named after the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, Thai—takes place in late January / early February when the star, Pusam, is at its highest point in the sky. In the days preceding, hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to Malaysia’s Batu Caves to commemorate the day when the goddess Parvati gave the young God Murugan a holy spear to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman from the earth.
A series of sacrificed are performed in Murugan’s honour and offerings are placed the feet of the Hindu God of War. The most mild of these is often a pot of milk, carried upon the shaved head of a pilgrims up the 272 stairs the lead to his cave temple. The more radical devotee will carry his offering in a hundred-plus kilogram kavadi, an ornate carriage supported on his shoulders and anchored into his flesh by a series of rods and hooks.
The image of a sea of entranced worshippers enthralled me. Garlands of jasmine, chrysanthemum, manoranjani, and ashoke hanging from deep caramel necks. Fireworks unzipping the inky sky. The kaleidoscopic colours of the Indian subcontinent beckoned after weeks of damp green. I even considered booking a ticket—a impractical fantasy considering I was 40 kilometres of forest from the nearest internet connection. Plus, I had just arrived in Bukit Lawang. I had apes to see. I promised myself that if I was still in Asia the following year I would make the trip. I was only one-month into my around the world trip. I had time.
The first skewer goes in too easily.
Gracefully as a kingfisher dives beneath the surface of a stream, the metal lance is pushed beneath the women’s skin. It surfaces, a few centimetres down her chest, silver head sparkling in the ambient light. She hardly winces. Her eyes are closed as she rocks back and forth, subtly on a low stool. This piercing ceremony is lit by the cheap LCD light of a Nokia 710 and a second women hums low guttural melodies as she wipes pearls of sweat from her friend’s brow. A man walks by, carrying a burning bowl; removes a pinch of ash and fingers it into the piercee’s sticky brown flesh. The lance driver reaches for another skewer. This one goes in just as gracefully. Without a hint of blood.
“Man cannot give money to the Gods,” Kavi had told me when we’d met at KL Sentral railways station earlier that day. I was fresh off a plane from Los Angeles by way of Taipei. “And so the next best thing he can do is show that he is willing to undergo pain."
Kavi worked as an auditor in Kuala Lumpur. He had reached out on Couchsurfing, under a public post I made about attending the festival on the first day of my visit to Malaysia. Ethnically Hindu, Kavi participated in the festival every year and was eager to let me shadow him.
Tonight he is dressed head to toe in Murugan's favourite colour. Pressed into his forehead is a milky third eye. We have no milk-pot to offer. Instead, Kavi is here to give his hair. He performs this renunciation of vanity annually. It’s part of a pact he’s made with the Gods who he hopes will cure his professor’s autistic son.
We squish through the matrix of sticky bodies and down a stamped-out path beneath the Lingkaran Tengah highway overpass. Stained plastic chairs line the banks of the Sungei Batu. The barbers, distributing shaves in exchange for donations, have travelled here from the Southern-States Indian subcontinent. The line is longer than usual. I'm told many barbers were deported in the preceding days for collecting wages without a permit. Kavi takes a place in line. I stagger further down the banks, toward brass-heavy whomp of Taala music. The muddy ground is clotted thick black hair. Tendrils of cheroot smoke thicken the air. Some type of shaman—flesh studded with hooks and frothing at the mouth—pin-wheels between circles amidst the shaved heads, kicking off the light of the moon.
“If you carry the kavadi you will not remember the pain of doing so,” Kavi had briefed me that afternoon between spoonfuls of ink-red curry. “First the carrier is put into a trance. The his body becomes occupied by one of the Gods. He only becomes conscious after he's been relieved of the weight.”
I raise my Nikon up to my eye and stop down to tackle the low light. Suddenly, the frothing shaman swings his head. Through a few inches of ground glass, I stare into the eyes of God himself.
For an agnostic Canadian, I’ve always housed a strange fascination with religion. While my high-school friends were reading Dawkins, I baby-stepped my way through copies of the Bible and the Koran. I studied Eastern Religion for a brief stint at university and at least one shelf of my bookcase is lined with Buddhist teachings—although largely, I admit, due to the rate at which those principals are being revisited and compared to quantum mechanics.
I’m constantly asked about my beliefs while abroad—particularly in Muslim countries. Tired of the deflated reactions I get when I mentioned that I do not believe in God, I’ve settled upon this answer: culturally, I’m Christian. My mother is of English and Scottish heritage and my father was baptized into the Catholic church. But they never passed those believes onto me and so I’m still exploring my options. I’ve been blessed with the gift of choice.
Although I’ve never felt the same comfortable compulsion as some of my more devout friends, I’m grateful for this impartiality. It’s kept me curious and unbiased as I’ve spend a large portion of my adult life in both Buddhist and Islamic world. I’ve prostrated myself on the cold floors of monasteries. One year, while visiting Tanzania, I spent the first few days of Ramadan in fast. And I was able to do so without the guilt of being purely a spectator. This was more of a taste test. After my first year in Asia, I found pinches of karmic belief slipping into my day-to-day and firmly believe I have lived better for it. Whether due to the vacuum in my own spirit or a kernel of divine buried behind these belief structures themselves, I’ve always felt an intangible calmness in participating in ritual. Perhaps it’s the magnetic appeal of human devotion?
Kavi’s head is shorn to the flesh and chalked yellow with sandalwood paste. It’s 2 a.m. We pause beneath a canvas tarp to wet our lips with sticky laddu before being sucked back into the human tide. As we emerge from beneath the overpass the giant golden frame of Murugan breaches in the distance—42.3 meters tall, the second largest statue of a Hindu deity of earth. And behind him the caves. The golden staircase leading up to the cave temple is split into three lanes: one for those pilgrims shouldering kavadis, one for those of us carrying a pot milk or less, and one for those who have already placed their offering and are on their journey home. Opposite the cave, the lonely city of KL glitters proudly. Some will return tonight. Others will camp on cardboard mats beside the Sungei Batu or beneath Jalan Lingkaran before heading to the outer provinces later in the week.
Golden crowned kadavis whirl above a sea of yellow-stained heads. Peacock feathers flap in the warm night (when Murugan split the demon Soorapadman in two, one half of his body became a peacock, the sacred beast which now serves as the child-God’s mount.) I grasp Kavi’s sweat soaked shirt with one hand and do a wallet check with my other. Earlier this afternoon Kavi had refused to allow his friend, a 5’2’’ exchange student from Egypt join us out of fear for her safety. We lean forward into the mountains and let the swell of bodies push us toward the heavens.
I never did make it to Malaysia on my first visit to Asia, nor was I on the continent when Thaipusam fell in 2014. But the Spanish couple's pitch in Bukit Lawang stuck with me and I watched the festivities from afar that year, in Canada, as I prepared for a springtime expedition down to Peru.
That same year, I caught word that my friend Jason, who I'd stayed with in Bangkok, had moved to Kuala Lumpur. I made a promise to myself to visit him—perhaps in time for the festival. That November, when I opened my letter of acceptance into the University of Melbourne I immediately began investigating layovers options. The closest I could come was flying in the morning of.
It’s 4:30 a.m. by the time we reach the Cave Temple. A pudgey, bare-chested man stands ankle deep in discarded sandals. He welcomes the pilgrims at the top of the stairs by pulling them into his sweaty chest and hanging a garland of jasmine around their necks. Kavi kicks off his rubber thongs and I copy. Despite the thousands of bodies that swirl around us, the cave floor is cold and damp. Hundreds of bamboo stocks, bent in the middle as if used to suspend a weight between two men, line one wall of the temple.
“Many young couples ask the Gods to help them conceive children,” Kavi tells me. “If their prayers are answered, they return the following year to show proof of the God’s benevolence.”
This year to avoid congestion, an automated milk collector has set up to collect offerings. The milk is poured into a large metal vessel that is then pumped slowly into the shrine. Many pilgrims attempt to side step the contraption and reach the shrine itself but most are stopped by volunteer security and asked return and place their milk in the steel bath. After a grueling walk — exhausting without a kavadi or a member of the Hindu divinity riding shotgun in my head— I can’t help but laugh at what seems like an anti-climactic denouement. Kavi tries his luck at the shrine. I’ll meet him at the cave entrance, I say. My head is spinning as I stumble toward fresh air.
I reach the cave’s mouth and stare out at the whirl-pool of pilgrims beneath me. Beside me, a man in trance is having flowers plucked from his skin, where they’ve been anchored in by barbs.
The last time I slept was 48 hours ago on a hotel bed in Los Angeles. Since then I’ve lectured to a hall at the University of Southern California and flown my entire life across the Pacific. I’ve seen the sunrise set fire to Taipei and crows shot out of the sky among the great chrome canyons of Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been bombarded with beauty, yet despite it all felt slightly removed. I’m still coming to terms with this unknown gravity that has me orbiting around Asia. What have I done to attract all this bold new chaos—or is it really me doing at all?
The flower studded man is dressed in orange silks. At first he hardly moves as these ornaments are teased from his skin. But as the removal progresses he begins to quiver — perhaps bleeding Shiva or Vishnu back out from the fresh holes in his flesh. Suddenly his eyes shoot open. I wonder what he sees.
Nate Robert, one of my favourite travel bloggers, visited KL this past February for the festival. Check out some electrifying photos from this years festival over on his blog, Yomadic.
If you're interesting in the legend of Murugan and Soorapadman, you should read a more lyric version of this post (containing a lot more Hindu mythology) over on Maptia.