Indians the world over have a gesture that, as far as I know, is unique to them. It is a sideways lift of the chin, usually performed in unison with a play of the eyes – a long, benign blink – and an almost imperceptible sway of the shoulders. Depending on context, it can be a yes, it can be a no, it can signal deference, it can signal a decision made. But regardless of context, the receiver always understands the message.
It is with this very gesture that Selva snapped out of his trance as Lord Kali, the fierce Hindu goddess. We are on the banks of the Batu River, which flows within eyesight of the famous Batu Caves, and it is the day before Thaipusam. During Thaipusam, Hindu devotees will undertake a pilgrimage from the Batu River to Batu Caves, while performing acts of penance such as carrying a physical burden (called a “Kavadi”), or piercing themselves with hooks or skewers. Devotees often enter into trances to perform these feats of endurance, calling upon one of Hinduism’s 33 million deities to possess them through intricate rituals passed down through the generations.
Initiating a trance
I am watching Selva perform one such ritual. First he cleanses himself. Traditionally, devotees take a dip in the river, but technology has now allowed for a public shower system to be installed on the riverbank. Then, an elaborate ceremony, conducted with the help of his entourage, follows, involving incense, fruits, Kumkum powder and holy ash.
Try as I may, I cannot keep up with or understand the maze of rites. Small braziers are lit, and some of the items held over the smoke. Milk is poured into two silver jars and secured to Selva’s Kavadi. Next to me, one of the women breaks into trance with a shriek. Another woman soon follows suit. Amidst all this, Selva bows and touches the feet of his mother, the ultimate gesture of respect in Hinduism.
One of the members of Selva’s entourage seems to perform the role of a priest, giving directions to the group. It is he who calls a trance on Selva. Selva stands before him, palms pressed together, as he chants quietly. Ash is sprinkled over Selva’s head, and his body begins to tense into a bow. I watch his eyes turn wild. With a scream, Selva drops to his knees, tongue out-stuck. He is Kali.
Next, the piercing. Selva’s penance this year involves piercing his tongue. As Selva – or Lord Kali – stands, arms akimbo, staring at the crowd that has formed around him, an exhausting amount of rites is performed over the long silver skewer that will be used. Meanwhile, he asks for a lime and chews on it. When the skewer is ready, he offers his tongue, which the priest dabs with Kumkum powder and ash, before slowly, laboriously, passing the skewer through it. He doesn’t flinch. With the skewer secured, the priest holds Selva’s head in his hands, chants some prayers, and suddenly, as if roused from deep thought, Selva’s body relaxes. Without even looking up, he lifts his chin sideways, and everyone in the group understands that the trance is over.
Now for the small matter of carrying the Kavadi all the way to the temple in Batu Caves. Like many other devotees, Selva will perform his pilgrimage today – a day earlier – to avoid the massive crowds on the day proper. “It’s OK to do it the evening before,” explains Selva when I spoke to him earlier. “It is still within the auspicious period of time, when the Pusam star is at its highest point and it emanates positive energy.”
Energy would be the word to describe Batu Caves that afternoon. The caves are a familiar sight in Kuala Lumpur, its bone-white limestone cliffs topped with verdant green jungle often intruding into the city’s concrete skyline. When it does, it usually provides visual relief, an oasis of calm amid urban bustle. But today, Batu Caves is buzzing with energy. Inside the park area around the caves, stalls line every walkway, selling religious trinkets, clothes, cold drinks, vegetarian food, traditional Indian sweets and even furniture. The air is thick with the scent of spices and cooking oil, and vibrates with music blared from loudspeakers that have long since burst their diaphragms. Indians love their music driving, pulsating, full-blooded. People are everywhere, jostling with you, calling out to you, smiling at your camera, and when you thank them, lifting their chin sideways in return. Everyone and everything is conspiring to beat back the energy-sapping Malaysian afternoon heat.
As you walk closer to the caves, the tarpaulin tents of stalls part to reveal the famous 150 foot-tall golden statue of Lord Murugan. And next to it, the 272 red-and-white steps that takes visitors from ground level up to the mouth of the main cave complex, within which resides the most visited Hindu temple in the country. Closer to the foot of the caves, various organisations and associations have erected tents to serve free vegetarian food to the anticipated 1.5 million visitors. At the back of the tents, huge vats are cooking batch after batch of rice, which when piled into mounds on a table covered in banana leaves, resembles a miniature of the Swiss Alps.
In this festive atmosphere, Selva carries his Kavadi towards the cave. Kavadis range in size and form, sometimes reaching up to seven feet above the bearer’s shoulders. But Selva has chosen a modest version resembling a carrying pole, decorated with Hindu motifs, and bearing a jar of milk at each end. He has walked some two kilometres to arrive at the foot of the 272-step stairs that leads to the caves. All through the journey, through the music and the smell of food and the heat and the crowds, Selva maintained stoic focus. Many devotees would enter into a trance for the entire duration of the procession, but Selva is aware and clear-minded throughout. “That’s the way I prefer it,” he would explain later. “I want to feel the burden on my shoulders.”
Resonating with the masses
An hour and a half after the start of his pilgrimage, at the top of the stairs, inside the temple, Selva completes his penance. His piercing is removed. He passes the two jars of milk to a priest, who pours it over a spear, before the shrine of Lord Murugan. I venture to ask him how he feels. “I feel fine, no tiredness,” he says casually. “Usually if there is tiredness it will set in after a day or two, but now I feel fine. Energised.”
As we leave the temple, at the mouth of the cave, the view opens up. I see that the crowd had swollen significantly. Suddenly, I am aware of the magnitude of the event. Below us, beyond the stairs streaming with people, the shape-shifting multitude of devotees gravitates towards us, watched over by the golden Lord Murugan. Behind us, the gaping mouth of Batu Caves soars overhead. Surrounding it all was the dusk sky, slowly turning the colour of saffron.
Thaipusam at night
At night, Thaipusam morphs into a different animal. The crowd, taking advantage of cooler weather, easily triples. The music continues unabated, but the sun is replaced by lights of all colours, casting shifting shadows in every direction. It is the busiest time of Thaipusam. I am with K. Anuharan, a devotee who flies back from Australia every year for the procession. He is preparing to carry a 30 kg Kavadi to Batu Caves, but we are stuck, literally, in a Kavadi jam.
Stuck in Kavadi rush hour
Kavadis tower over me from every direction. Large Kavadis, each accompanied by an entourage of family and friends, and often by a traditional drum troupe as well. It is a crush of human bodies, with not a moment’s silence, as the drum troupes take turns belting out rattling beats and devotees break out in chants of “Vel Vel Muruga”. We need to make it to the Batu River, where Anuharan can offer his prayers, carry his Kavadi, and initiate a trance. It is no more than a hundred metres away, but we simply cannot get there. Anuharan is already two hours late. He had planned to beat the nighttime peak period, but now finds himself smack in the middle of it. In a moment of calm, between organising his entourage, trying to navigate his Kavadi through the throng, and placating his young daughter (who was uncomfortable because she was barefoot), he catches my eye. “Tension”, he says with a smile. Why? “Already two hours late, and I had to make you wait.” I demur, he smiles. I am grateful enough that he has allowed me to join his entourage.
It is decided that it would be impossible to reach the riverbank. Anuharan will offer his prayers on the asphalt where we stand. Items are brought out and placed on sheets of newspaper, braziers lit with camphor tablets. Amidst the noise, the jostling, the semi-darkness, I can barely follow the ritual that takes place. Ash is smeared on his body and his forehead. He prostrates himself before his elders. The milk jar is filled with milk, and fastened to the centre of the Kavadi. Somewhere, someone flips a switch, and Anuharan’s Kavadi flashes with multicoloured lights. On the centrepiece of the Kavadi, a styrofoam peacock shimmers in the lights. Anuharan finds time to pick up his daughter, and shows her the centrepiece. “See, all this I did for you.” Anuharan had persuaded the Kavadi maker to add lights and a peacock to his Kavadi at the very last minute, even going to the extent of purchasing the lights on his own, at the request of his daughter. His daughter is placated.
It is time to carry his Kavadi. Bala, the Kavadi maker, helps mount the Kavadi on his shoulders, adjusting the metal fittings to make sure that the weight is evenly distributed across the shoulders. With the Kavadi strapped on, there is one final ritual before the procession begins – initiating the trance. The crowd around senses something is happening, and turn to watch. Anuharan’s elders step forward to bless him. Anuharan asks for the drum troupe to play louder. His entourage starts chanting. His mother breaks into a trance and starts dancing before him. The chanting turns urgent. Anuharan takes it all in, palms pressed together. His body goes taut. He throws his head back, and with a great cry, he emerges as the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman, and immediately starts dancing.
A long journey
Four hours later, Anuharan’s entourage is still yet to arrive at the steps of Batu Caves. A straight walk of the procession trail would take an hour at most, but it’s Kavadi rush hour. Moreover, Anuharan, possessed by the playful Lord Hanuman, insists on dancing his way there. Anuharan would later tell me that he cannot dance to save his life.
As we near the caves, the crush of bodies becomes almost suffocating. Ahead, the giant statue of Lord Murugan rises into view. With most of the Kavadis at this hour lit up like Christmas trees, I imagine the view from his vantage point would be quite surreal – dancing boats of lights floating on a sea of human bodies.
By the time we finally reach the summit, it is an hour past midnight. Below, the crowd, though still huge, has begun to thin. Inside the temple, the Kavadi is dismounted, and Anuharan, as Lord Hanuman, presents himself before the shrine of Lord Murugan. It seemed like the two deities shared a moment. Then, Anuharan takes a pinch of holy ash, presses it to his forehead, and, suddenly only human, he collapses.
His family helps him to the shrine, where his offering of milk is poured out before the deity. As he lingers for a moment longer, palms pressed together against his forehead in prayer, his face contorts with emotion. His journey is over. Even watching him from a distance, I felt the release. This is the culmination not of a five-hour Kavadi pilgrimage, but of a 48-day journey that started, with the commencement of his vows, in Australia. “Everything I’ve done is out of devotion to Lord Murugan,” he would explain later. “It’s not just the milk that I offered, I want to be the best that I can throughout the past 48 days. Hopefully that becomes a habit for the rest of the year, until the next Thaipusam.”
All are welcome
As I leave the temple, I notice a group of Chinese Buddhists who had also just offered milk at the shrine. One of them even had a skewer through his cheeks and piercings on his back. It led me to recall a conversation with Selva previously: “Hinduism holds nothing against other religions,” he said. “We believe God is one, and there are many ways for us to realise God.” Anuharan agrees. “Everyone has their own journey to walk. I am brought up a Hindu, so I walk in the Hindu path to realise God, just as a Christian would walk in the Christian path, and as a Buddhist would walk in the Buddhist path.” In retrospect, this inclusiveness is suddenly evident to me. Both Selva and Anuharan allowed me, a stranger, to share the most sacred part of their lives, without prying into my personal religious beliefs. And after everything, they thanked me, even before I could thank them. Their welcome bordered on veneration: “This person must be sent to us by Lord Murugan!” exclaimed a member of Selva’s entourage after the procession, taking my hand. I thank him in return, and he lifts his chin sideways, a gesture that says it all.
Missed the first part of this series? We go behind the scenes of Kavadi making to find out what it means to carry the burden.