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animals, Kuala Lumpur, less food-related, Malaysia, temples, travel

Passage to India

01.27.10 | 6 Comments

It’s always tough to prioritize travel dreams, because if you handed me a ticket to anywhere, I’d go without hesitation. But a few times over my years of conversations with other wanderers, I’ve been asked the top five places I want to go. India has always held a place on the list.

Sunday, our last in KL, Debbie and Steve took us to the Batu Caves, which are Hindu shrines a few kilometers out of the city. But little did any of us know that I would get the closest to India I’ve ever been, and probably will be for a while.

The Hindu festival Thaipusam happens this year on January 30, a week after we’d leave KL. Thus we thought we would miss out on all the action, which is known to feature men with numerous hooks in their backs and spears through their faces. The first sign that we were about to see something exciting was the cars parked along the side of the highway for at least half a mile.

I hope your mouse hand doesn’t tire scrolling through all the pictures I’m posting. It was nearly impossible to narrow my pictures down to this, so remember to stretch, pace yourself, and carbo-load.

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A brief intro about Thaipusam, gleaned mostly from Wikipedia: it’s celebrated by mostly the Tamil community on the full moon in the month of Thai. It commemorates both the birth of Murugan and also the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a spear to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.

Take from that what you will—I don’t know who the deities are, but I’m guessing that the spear has something to do with why I saw—or mostly heard a guy get a spear pierced through his tongue. It sounded very, very painful.

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Devotees will cleanse themselves with a vegetarian fast for a week, and then on the day of the festival, they’ll venture to the shrine as an act of devotion. Many carry a Kavadi, some sort of physical burden, to get through or avoid misfortune. The Kavadi has a few manifestations, from jugs of milk on carried on the head

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To decorated wire…things,

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…to the aforementioned tongue spears and back hooks. You’ll get to see those a little later.

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Multiple generations of families pour into Batu caves, first cleansing themselves in the river, then making their way to the shrine some 272 steps up into a cave. The people going this weekend were worshippers who, for one reason or another, could not make it on the actual date of Thaipusam.

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The men, and I saw a few women, too, shave their heads.

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And then they rub them with something yellow. At first I thought it might be turmeric, but upon asking, turns out it’s sandalwood.

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Women are decked out in their brightest saris.

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They hang flowers from their braids.

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It was crowded, but not China crowded. I could still walk around. But Debbie said that on the actual day of Thaipusam, it’s so filled with people that you can’t walk about freely. In the intense heat, about 30 C, the air smells like a swirl of body odor, incense, and the flower wreath offerings.

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The really devoted devotees, who engage in “mortification of the flesh,” are part of a procession, which includes the devotee, sometimes in an apparatus, and drummers, so there’s a lot of music.

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People stand around and watch as the processional slowly moves up the staircase.

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The staircase is surrounded by trees, wherein live a highly aggressive kind of monkey.

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John saw a woman accidentally drop her bag, and then before she could pick it up, this monkey swooped in and got it himself.

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John wanted a picture with the monkeys, but was a little afraid of what one may do to him should he get too close. You can see this monkey is eyeing him—he got out of the way as soon as the shutter clicked.

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Some parents sling a large piece of cloth from a long pole, stick their infant in the cloth, and carry the baby, bobbing inches from the stone steps, up the staircase to give thanks for their new child. It makes Debbie wince.

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At the top of the steps you walk into an enormous cave to a few shrines…

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And then you walk up and out the other side, where there’s another shrine, with incense burning.

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Before undergoing mortification of the flesh, these few devotees are put in a trance. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about trances. I admit to being somewhat skeptical and wondering if sometimes people just pretend to be in a trance, or say they are for acceptance or honor or whatever. But last weekend I saw a man in a trance; I won’t take pictures of that kind of thing, be cause it’s a personal, spiritual experience, and even if I don’t fully understand that sort of experience, I recognize that it’s very sacred to those performing it.

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It’s very hard to describe what someone in a trance is like. He was like a child and an animal, crawling around and making strange sounds. Men smiled faintly as he flailed on the ground, as I imagine some people smirk when their spouses or best friends have had a bit too much to drink. They poured water on his head and put their hands on him to try to calm him and bring him out of the trance, as his hooks and burdens had been removed.

As we walked back down the stairs, another devotee processional was making its way up. The main devotee, a large tattooed man decked out in flowers and hooks, danced to the drums as showers of flower petals rained down on him.

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Before we headed back to Steve and Debbie’s house, we headed down to the river, where people cleanse themselves before heading up the stairs. When we got there, the activity had died down in the mid-day heat. But there was one young man kneeling on the ground, surrounded by a group of adults bent over him. He was screaming or groaning in pain, and the adults were all chanting some sort of short blessing. In a quick glance, I saw a metal spear, perhaps a bit thinner than a pencil, going through his tongue, obviously rendering him speechless.

When the spear had been sufficiently put in place, the adult crowd parted. Whimpering as the initial pain receeded, he slowly stood up. For a moment, our gaze met. His eyes were wide and flat, in a spiritual or pain-induced trance. I thought he might faint, but he picked up his Kavadi and led a procession up to the shrine.

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