Thaipusam Festival - A Series by Yel Legaspi - www.yellegaspi.com
Thaipusam Festival
A yearly Hindu feast that encompasses the most faithful Hindu devotees
        I observed this event up close back in 2011, a couple of years after I started working in Malaysia. Compared to the other two major ethnicities, Malays and Chinese Malays, and their main religions, Islam and Buddhism, this event for the Indian Hindu community is probably the most imposing of all the religious practices in Malaysia. It's a grand pilgrimage that magnets throngs of devotes and tourists to the spectacle of the festivities.
Above: Pilgrim, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above: A pilgrim rests for carrying his kavadi, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Defining this yearly feast as phenomenal would be an understatement as over a million devotees, local and foreign, flock to Batu Caves, a temple dedicated to Hindu deity Murugan. The celebration is dedicated to a Hindu event when Murugan received a spear (Vel) from Parvati to defeat the demon Soorapadman.
Defining this yearly feast as phenomenal would be an understatement
Above: A pilgrim in trance. Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above: Limes hanging on a pilgrim's body, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.


The pilgrimage for one would start by shaving one's head and then walking a dedicated route, usually from another temple to the caves. Often Barefoot, pilgrims walk some several kilometers to reach the holy site, sometimes accompanied by friends and relatives providing emotional support (and sometimes physical) for each other. Some are, for the lack of a better word, "psyched" with the accompaniment of drum beats and chants during the whole pilgrimage. Most of the pilgrims offer milk stored in a Paal Kudam (milk pots) covered in a yellow sheet of cloth and are carried on top of their heads throughout the journey.
Above: Small paal kudams containing milk hangs from a pilgrim's body, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above: A pilgrim's hand, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above: A pilgrim carrying a vel cavadi while dancing, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
The most notable characteristic of the whole festival is the mortification of the flesh of the pilgrims. A tradition to subdue bodily desires is self inflicted using vel skewers, hooks and alike into different parts of the body and face. It is common to see men having a skewer protruding from one side of the cheek to the other or tongues sticking out with a metal stuck in the middle of it.
Above: A pilgrim's foot, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above: A Ganesh statue, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Above Left: Paal Kudams carried by pilgrims, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.


Some are, for the lack of a better word, "psyched"
Above: A small paal kudam hangs on pilgrim's mouth, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.


Men carrying ornately decorated altars or canopy through (some) metals latched on to their skins while performing Kavadi Attam, a dance performed by the devotees during the journey. Some men hang small milk pots or fruits, counting from 10 to 20 of each, from their skin via small hooks and chains. Seeing these types of sacrifices or offerings face to face is an experience itself.
Above: Pilgrims with skewers skrewn to their cheeks and tongues, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.


After the long walk, the pilgrims would arrive to the vicinities of Batu Caves with Murugan's 140 feet statue donning over all. Before heading to the temple the pilgrims would bathe (cleanse in a religious sense) themselves in Batu River. From here they can see the last leg of their pilgrimage which is the 276 steps they have to climb to reach the temple above the caves. Once they reach the top, they can then finally give their offerings and prayers, ask for penitence and grace. This marks the end of their pilgrimage.
Above: Hooks hanging from a pilgrim's chest, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
Left: A man is in trance during the festival, Thaipusam Festival, Batu Caves, Malaysia. January 2011.
One can observe the elated mood in the atmosphere during the event. Thunderous music, chants and drum beats echo throughout the event that makes the whole thing festive. Out of all these frolic one can also observe the trance pilgrims go into. Some are in deep thought and focus while some go wild with their dancing and chantings. A pilgrim bearer is said to prepare themselves 2 days before the pilgrimage, fasting while continuously thinking of god. With all the hooks and skewers and whatnot, the kilometers of walk barefoot, the fasting and the heat, and see in their faces a calm focused aura or a an excited pilgrim dancing with joy, an outsider like me can only be astonished to the testament and dedication of their faith. It is really something to be seen with your own eyes.
an outsider like me can only be astonished to the testament and dedication of their faith

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About the Author & Photographer
Yel Legaspi
Documenting the highs and lows of traveling, photographing the mundane or the phenomenal. Currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Filipino. Celtics fanatic.
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P.S.

Hundreds of people were still pouring into the vicinity of Batu Caves as I felt that it was time for me to leave. That was around 2 PM. I was dead tired and decided that I've used up most of my energy throughout the morning (call time of 4:00 AM). As I decided to leave I came pass by a barber shop tent for pilgrims and saw this family. The father just finished having his head shaven and it was his little girl's turn. I snapped the photo below as this was happening. The girl who was crying stopped, out of curiosity, because I was taking her picture. After this I chatted with the Mother and I asked as to why are they shaving their heads. "A form of offering" she said.
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