“I am a chain smoker,” says the Kavadi maker. “Every day one packet.”
I am standing amidst piles of plywood and steel fittings, power tools on the floor and sawdust in the air, under the front porch awning of a simple terrace house on the outskirts of Banting, 45 minutes from Kuala Lumpur. Outside, in the hot afternoon sun, half completed Kavadis stand on the asphalt, some mere skeletons of steel rods and plywood, unrecognisable. This is where Kavadis—a physical burden carried by Hindus as an act of penance during the festival of Thaipusam—are made. I survey the scene before me. I had expected it to be somewhat less industrial, more mystical – perhaps an ascetic hand-crafting his creations, amid swirls of camphor smoke. But cigarette smoking is the conversation at hand. “I’m a chain smoker, but since the month of Thai began, not a single stick.”
Bala, the Kavadi maker, is referring to the Hindu month of Thai, from which the Hindu festival Thaipusam derives its name. On the day I meet him, he has not had a smoke for three weeks. Along with other Hindu devotees, Bala undergoes fasting for 48 days (the duration of a month in the Hindu calendar), abstaining from entertainment and luxury before the day-long procession that is the face of Thaipusam. Bala proudly shows me an album of newspaper clippings, where every photo or mention of his Kavadis in the press has been lovingly laminated and bound. It is a labour of love. “It’s not really about the money,” he says in a thick Tamil accent, “I help people to do their pilgrimage.”
A pilgrimage with different paths
I meet one of Bala’s customers during the course of my visit. K. Anuharan has come to check on the progress of his Kavadi. Wearing a thick, silver-speckled beard and a malar (sort of a Hindu rosary) around his neck, he surprises me by speaking perfect English. His Kavadi is relatively modest by current standards, but still measures over five feet in height and width, and weighs around 30 kg. Balance is the hallmark of a well-crafted Kavadi, and Anuharan is here to make sure that the Kavadi’s heft is evenly distributed across his shoulders. “As far back as I can remember, I have been joining the Thaipusam procession at Batu Caves every year.” At my disbelief, he strains to recall if he has ever missed one. “No,” he finally says. “Even now that I am staying in Australia, I will fly back every Thaipusam.”
Selva is another Hindu devotee who will carry the Kavadi this year. An engineer at an airline company based in KL and an avid marathon runner, he too has joined the procession every year since childhood. Even when he was working in Singapore during his younger days, he joined the procession in Singapore.
The Kavadi that Selva will carry is completely different from Anuharan’s. He shows me a photo of it on his phone. It is a simple wood pole, modestly embellished, which will be balanced across his shoulders. At both ends of the pole, he will hang a jar of milk, which devotees bring to the temple as an offering. While the larger Kavadis and the spectacular Vel Kavadis (which are attached to bearers partly through steel spikes pierced into the bearers’ skin) are the ones that grab the attention of photographers and the public, it is Selva’s understated Kavadi that is closer to the traditional form. “The traditional Kavadi is merely a pole with an arch over it, that rests on the bearer’s shoulder,” explains Kandasamy Velayuthan, Deputy President of the Malaysian Hindu Sangam, the body that oversees Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia. “It should only be decorated with palm branches, peacock feathers and fruits that are used for prayers.” Over the years, Kavadis grew bigger and more elaborate. Kandasamy admits that this could be partly fuelled by one-upmanship among devotees, but is also due to the different vows made by different devotees. Perhaps each man has his own burden to carry.
Both Anuharan and Selva agree to me following them during the Thaipusam procession. Knowing that I have no prior experience, they describe to me a typical Thaipusam procession.
The procession itself is a raucous epic. Over a million devotees take the two-kilometre procession to Batu Caves, many carrying Kavadis of all sizes, the air rattling with the frantic drumbeats of traditional music troupes. Though the rituals practised might differ, the itinerary is largely similar: The procession starts on the banks of the Batu River, where devotees wash themselves as a symbolic form of cleansing, Hindu priests offer prayers, and the devotees take up their Kavadis. At this point, all the abstinence and fasting and meditation of the previous 48 days come to a head. Many Kavadi bearers will enter into a trance. Anuharan describes the experience: “The energy of a deity is channeled into you, and it’s as if you lose control of your body. You are aware of your surroundings, but it’s as if another energy is controlling your body, giving you the endurance and focus to finish the procession. Sometimes you even lose consciousness completely, so you have no recollection of events during the trance. You enter into a trance at the river bank, and wake up at Batu Caves!”
The intensity of the trance depends very much on the devotee’s preparations ahead of the big day. “Sometimes you get a good trance, sometimes you get a weak trance,” says Anuharan. “If you didn’t prepare with the right spirit – fast properly or spend time meditating – you will get a weak trance, and this means you might not have the strength to complete the procession. It is said that the piercings would hurt too,” he continues, referring to the common practice of piercing one’s self with metal skewers or hooks, as an accompanying act of penance.
Piercings have become a point of contention. Some, like Anuharan, disagree with the practice. “Hinduism never asks me to hurt myself,” he says. “It is a form of penance for some, they make a vow to do it, and so they must fulfill that vow. But for me, I don’t do it.” Selva, though, has had piercings before, and offers his counterpoint. “I have heard that when a skewer is pierced through the tip of the tongue, it touches a nerve on the tongue that helps the brain to focus and keep it in a meditative state during the procession.”
The home stretch
Three days before Thaipusam, devotees who plan to participate in the procession visit a temple to offer special prayers. Anuharan, whose pilgrimage began in Australia, offers his prayers at the Ayappan temple near Batu Caves. A priest affixes a piece of turmeric on a string, sprinkles it with red Kunkum powder, and ties it to Anuharan’s hand. It is called a Kappu. It is a sign that its bearer has made a vow, and is currently serving out his penance. For the next three days, Anuharan will stay at the temple, sleeping on the floor at night, meditating and avoiding worldly distractions.
Selva, no stranger to tests of endurance, is hitting the home stretch too. His vows of abstinence will grow more severe, and he too will meditate more. Bala, the Kavadi maker, has much more to do. He has set up a tent near the Batu River, which will serve as his base of operations. Last-minute requests from customers leave him busy. At the same time, he too needs to observe all his vows. By day he scrambles to complete Kavadis, by night he and his wife sleep at nearby temples. On Thaipusam day, Bala will perform the procession over and over again. He or members of his team need to walk with the devotees who rent his Kavadi all the way to the Batu Caves temple, and retrieve the Kavadi in time for the next rental. Anuharan, Selva, and Bala are just three of an estimated 1.5 million people who will throng Batu Caves this year. Each will approach Batu Caves with different vows, bearing different burdens, having walked different paths. This is the final buildup of spirituality, for all of them.
A common burden
Why do you do it? I ask. Though Anuharan and Selva differ in their practice of Thaipusam, they both offer the same answers – thanksgiving and tradition. “I carry a big Kavadi because I once made a request, and it was answered miraculously. In return, I vowed to carry a big Kavadi every year, so this is a fulfillment of that vow,” explains Anuharan. Selva has never made a specific vow, but he, too, sees the Thaipusam procession as an act of thanksgiving.
“It is a way of expressing my gratitude for the blessings in my life, and at the same time, to request for the blessings to continue.” Selva adds, “It is part of my identity as a Hindu. My family has always participated in the Thaipusam procession, and when the time comes I will pass this on to my children.” Anuharan concurs. “Every year, ever since I can remember, my family has taken this pilgrimage. It is a tradition worth keeping.”
Journey with us, as we go on a pilgrimage to Batu Caves in the second part of this series: A Walk Among Gods