For Shades Narsimalu, Thaipusam this year is a deeply meaningful occasion. He will be offering a prayer of gratitude for his recovery, following a major car accident in 2019 that saw him paralysed for over two months.
“I have always followed friends and family, walking to Batu Caves each Thaipusam. This year will be the most significant, as I didn’t think I would be able to walk again,” Shades explains.
“But my prayers were answered. So, I am looking forward to offering gratitude for this second chance at life,” says the 32-year-old IT manager who has always seen the event as a profoundly spiritual affair.
Shades will be amongst the thousands of Hindu devotees who will flock to Batu Caves, in a test of faith, endurance and penance during the world’s largest Thaipusam congregation.
Thaipusam - which received its name from the word ‘Thai’, the 10th month of the Tamil calendar, and ‘Pusam’, the Pushya star which usually coincides with the month's full moon,was first celebrated in and around Kuala Lumpur and Batu Caves in 1891. Today, the event in Malaysia’s capital city is considered the biggest and most vibrant in the world, attracting over 500,000 devotees, curious visitors and tourists in a span of three to four days.
The religious observation begins on the eve of Thaipusam, with a procession which departs from the Sri Mahamariamman temple near Chinatown, the oldest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur. Worshippers will walk barefoot, pulling a massive silver chariot with statues of Lord Murugan and his two consorts, Valli and Deivanai, in a 15-kilometre march to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Batu Caves.
A prayer ceremony is held at the foot of the caves upon arrival in the morning. Devotees carrying their offerings will then proceed to make the pilgrimage up the 272 steps to reach the temple.
The kavadi is considered the quintessential element of Thaipusam celebrations. A traditional kavadi is a wooden structure decorated with bells, flowers and peacock feathers that’s slung across the shoulder. Recently, there are more elaborately decorated metal kavadis which are affixed to the bodies of male worshippers using multiple hooks driven through their skin. Women and younger pilgrims, on the other hand, carry different types of offerings.
“While some of my brothers and cousins have carried the metal kavadis, my sisters and I have joined the Thaipusam walk by carrying the paal kudam,” says Samitha Thamilarasan, referring to the offering of a filled milk pot.
“We will partake in the ceremonial bath, putting jasmine flowers in our hair, before beginning the procession. Thaipusam is very important for my family as it is a day for us to give thanks for all the blessings that we have received in the year,” continues the 21-year-old journalism student.
Since last year, devotees and tourists have had more reason to be a part of the festivities, as the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Batu Caves was given a unique facelift. With the majestic golden statue of Lord Murugan in the foreground, the main façade of the religious landmark and the steps leading up from it, now dazzle with a rainbow riot of colour.
According to the temple’s trustee, Datuk Sivakumar Nadarajah, the idea to repaint the steps in a myriad of colours came to him after the temple’s Kumbhabhishekham, a repair and rejuvenation ritual that takes place every twelve years. He wanted something out of the ordinary to make the temple livelier in order to attract more visitors.
This proved a worthy bet, as the temple has become an even bigger tourist hotspot, drawing visitors the world over, looking for that perfect ‘grammable’ spot. Most importantly, it has increased appreciation of this religious celebration, today and for decades to come.