How to Spectate at Thaipusam

Article by: unknown author

Fri February 01, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Batu_PlayboyThe sacred and the profane (Playboy bunny logo) mix at Thaipusam

As seen on AFAR

One person’s ritual can be another person’s voyeuristic guilty pleasure. In San Francisco, we have an annual festival weekend called the Folsom Street Fair dedicated to people who love dressing up in leather and enjoy playing the roles of sadist or masochist. It’s a fleshy event with a twist that can feel more medieval – whips and chains – than modern. But, I’ve always had a weird feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be watching all of this.

Batu_Frame1You need good peripheral vision to stay out of the way of devotees like this guy

I felt that same sense occasionally at Thaipusam with all the piercings and pain, especially not being Hindu nor Tamil (the Tamil Malaysians are the main people who celebrate this festival). But, talking to a couple of Thaipusam veterans, I arrived at four helpful rules for the day.

Batu_SaffronSaffron is the color of the day, although no one is expected to dress up

Tip #1: It’s okay to stare, but smile at the devotees as well as their families. Not once did I feel unwelcome, but smiling seemed to be the way I was able to show my respect especially for those who were struggling with their kavadi (wooden structures that represent their burden). Remember these are people in the midst of moral redemption. They’re not the freak show of some carnival.

Batu_Back_SaffronThis guy’s back rang a lot of bells so you knew he was coming

Tip #2: Be aware of your surroundings especially if you’re taking pictures. Everything is constantly in motion and it’s hard to stand in one place and take photos since people are either walking to the Batu Caves or away from them. More than once, I was taking pictures of one family of devotees and ended up stumbling into another group. So, don’t put blinders on.

DSC01127Yes, this is an intense experience

Tip #3: Look away if it’s too much. If you get squeamish easily, just know that in the 1970s and before, Thaipusam devotees typically used long skewers that were embedded in the skin over the ribs of the devotee. This practice proved to be more dangerous such that today small silver hooks have become the norm. Don’t point, don’t freak, and don’t lose your lunch.

DSC01128An ancient way of creating dimples

Tip #4: Bare feet are required in certain places. The devotees who make the 15-kilometer trek to the Batu Caves do it barefoot but they’re in the minority. Yet, once you get into the Caves there are certain devotional spaces that you cannot enter with shoes (and many non-devotees leave their shoes at the bottom of the 272 steps). Most importantly, the best vantage point for the day is on the steps but, if you’re taking photos, just know you can’t block traffic for long so your best plan may be to walk up and down the steps multiple times and praise yourself for working out your gluteus maximus muscles.