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A Sacred Pilgrimage

Thaipusam falls on a full moon and is a remembrance of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war. The deity was given a sacred lance by his mother, Shiva’sconsort, which he used to slaughter three demons in a victory of good over evil.

Thaipusam takes place over three days. On the first day, a chariot bearing a statue of Lord Murugan departs from the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on a procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. On the second day, participants walk barefoot on a 15-kilmeter (9 miles) path to the Batu Caves to fulfill vows. On the third day, the chariot returns to the Temple.

Most attendees choose to experience only the pilgrimage to the Batu Caves. During the peregrination, Hindu faithfuls carry pots of milk and huge decorated frames (called kavadi, or burden) supported by spikes puncturing their chests and back – atonement for their sins. Prior to the day, the bearers of kavadi have prepared themselves spiritually by subsisting on a limited vegetarian diet for a month, fasting completely for the last couple of days, and practicing celibacy the whole time. Between the diet, the heat, the long shoeless trek, and the weight of the kavadi, the followers are nearly in a trance when they arrive at the bottom of the hill that leads up to the Batu Caves. Beware that the person next to you may spontaneously erupt in flailing arms and erratic dance moves.

No Physical Pain, No Spiritual Gain

Why go to this extreme? These devout Hindus would ask the same question of those Americans who begrudgingly commute to work three hours each day in order to afford a gargantuan ranch home in a gated suburb. That’s a different form of torture. Participants perform the ritual only once a year, primarily as a means of demonstrating their gratitude and commitment to overcoming obstacles. The wounds caused by the hooks and lances are immediately treated with lemon juice and holy ash in order to prevent scarring. So, while in the moment, it may seem a little gory, the adherents of the custom believe that a short-term bodily pain is worth a long-term spiritual gain.

Historian Bettany Hughes once said, “Socrates thought it futile to catalogue the world without first loving it.” That almost obsessive devotion is an apt summary of the Thaipusam experience. It is easy to be judgmental of the unusual and ostensibly painful practice. But, as a festival-goer, you will soon realize that conventions are just a concrete and explicit manifestation of personal values. They’re no different than the survival of the fittest attitude or American gladiator spirit of combat acted out through epic football games during Super Bowl season.

For the Tamil Hindus in Malaysia, Thaipusam represents fidelity to both deities and family. The festival is truly a multi-generational affair: you’ll see people of all ages pricking their faces with thin spears or carrying large art projects on their backs.

West African author Malidoma Some has explained the necessity of tradition, “Where ritual is absent the young ones are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered.” These customs are what pass down wisdom from generation to generation and build a sense of collective identity. Thaipusam acts as a reminder that discipline and devoutness can transcend earthly limitations through the universal love of family and friends and the belief in powers beyond ourselves.

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