From Kavadi dances to head shaving and body piercings, you might have seen some of the sacred rituals and practices of Thaipusam. Every year, more than a million people across the world flock to Batu Caves during this auspicious celebration to praise the God of War in Hindu mythology, Lord Murugan (aka Kartikeya). It is at this temple where you can find the tallest statue of Lord Murugan in the world.

The Kavadi & The Pilgrimage

A Hindu devotee adding the final touches of flowers onto the Kavadi.

Legend has it that on this day, Lord Murugan vanquished the demon Tarakasuran with “vel”, a sacred spear gifted to Murugan by his mother, Parvathi. To commemorate the day that Murugan saved humankind, devotees carry heavy kavadis (burdens) as a sign of debt bondage along their pilgrimage to the temple of Batu Caves. Devotees also pay worship to Lord Murugan in the hopes of healing sick family members, and make the barefoot pilgrimage across several kilometers and climbing the 272 steps of Batu Caves.

A Kavadi bearer receiving blessings before he begins his pilgrimage.

To prepare for the pilgrimage, kavadi bearers undergo an elaborate preparation ritual, where they have to commit to fasting in order to keep their body and minds clean. 48 days before the pilgrimage, they begin a vegetarian/sattvic food diet, while also abstaining from sexual desires and even cigarettes. They must also refrain from common stimulants such as caffeine or chocolate and also intoxicating drinks and drugs. All of this must be done while bearing the presence of the gods in mind, with daily prayers being performed in devotion to the forthcoming pilgrimage.

A kavadi bearer going into a state of trance.

On the 48th day of fasting, pilgrims gather nearby Batu Caves to begin their journey. An elaborate prayer session is conducted by the lead kavadi bearer of each group with the sounds of rhythmic drums blaring in the background. With the steady beat of the drums and repetitive chants of prayers, the kavadi bearers are driven into a trance-like state. This is when they believe the gods have entered the body, and devotees flock to the kavadi bearer to receive blessings which they believe to be from the gods.

A Kavadi bearer performing rituals and blessings.

Once the prayers and rituals are complete, the Kavadi bearers begin their journey. They walk on the road,, carrying a 30kg heavy kavadi with piercings running through their skin. They carry their burden across several kilometers with steep inclines onto flyovers and highways to reach batu caves. Once here, they begin the climb up the steps of Batu Caves to reach the shrine in the cave, where they perform another prayer which marks the completion of their pilgrimage.

The Colours

Devotees wear yellow and orange robes, colours which are significant to Lord Murugan. Flowers and peacock feathers are also often used for decoration and prayers as the peacock is the sacred vehicle of Lord Murugan.

The Piercings

During Thaipusam, devotees also perform mortifications of the flesh by piercing their tongue, back, or cheeks as a sign of sacrifice to defeat the pilgrim’s inner demons and to obtain the blessings of the gods.

Piercing the tongue and cheeks resemble the sacrifice of giving up the gift of speech. It is believed that submitting oneself and surrendering the body enables them to feel no pain, nor bleed due to the blessings from the gods.

The Shaving

Another common ritual that can be seen is the act of head shaving. Devotees get their heads shaved as a sign of being reborn and to remove the sins of the past. Hair is also presented to the gods as an offering, as hair is seen as a matter of pride and by offering it to the gods, it is believed to remove pride and arrogance in devotees. With the absence of pride and arrogance, devotees believe they can be closer to the gods.

 Thaipusam celebrations and pilgrimages have been going on since 1892. Every year, more and more people flock to Batu Caves to experience one of the most electrifying atmospheres and eye opening experiences in the world. Lord Murugan continues to be widely worshipped in his cave temples across the world.

 If you’d like to know more about why Lord Murugan’s temples are always located near mountain ranges, check out our next article(these words to be linked to next post), which story is derived from Hindu mythology.

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Vincent Wong

Vincent Wong is an aspiring writer cum photographer and traveller, who loves diving head first into culture and exploring the wonders of the world. Like any Malaysian, Vincent loves food and is always on the hunt for the next best meal. After having spent several years away from Malaysia, this young man realised the uniqueness of his home country and aims to tell the stories of Malaysia and all it has to offer.
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