It is the middle of the night, the heat is overwhelming inside the squeeze of a million people and we have come to a terrifying stop. I look to my husband Dave for reassurance but he cannot help me. Panic has set in and I cannot move, escape, or breathe.
In the past, masses of people have been trampled to death in this exact situation. 244 people were killed during the 2004 Hajj in Mecca, and I can’t help but think about that now. Could it possibly happen to me as well? A flash enters my brain, and I envision the headlines back home in Toronto. “Two Canadians Crushed to Death in South East Asia.”
I am at the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Thaipusam, the astonishing Hindu Festival is taking place and according to the papers, 1.5 million people will be attending this year. For three days, worshippers pay tribute to the Lord Murugan by, having spike’s driven through their cheeks and tongues, inserting hooks into their flesh and carrying offerings up 272 steps to the Cave’s massive chamber. Some people carry Kevadi’s, giant cages made of steal. Decorated with vibrant ribbons and peacock feathers, it takes four men to lift it onto the shoulders of the brave soul who dares to take on such a feat. Others have large hooks stuck into their backs attached to a chariot that they drag along or have a person pulling on the reigns to add to the burden. The greater the pain, the better chance of having their prayers answered.
People take part in Thaipusam for different reasons. To give thanks for a miracle that has happened in their lives, to ask for a wish to be granted or to seek penance for past sins. Worshippers prepare for their ordeal by fasting, meditating and abstaining from worldly pleasures.
As we sway in the wave of bodies, the people around me seem oblivious to the danger. Drums are beating, people are chanting in the dark and a young boy is quickly becoming wedged between me, and the wall of people that is holding us in place. A woman is laughing madly and I wonder Is this the last thing I will see before my death? Suddenly a calm passes over me, and I give into the rhythm. Just then, Dave takes my hand and pulls me through a small opening where we finally push our way to the edge of the crowd.
Looking on from the safety of a drainage pipe spanning a small river, I am relieved to simply watch the never-ending stream of people pass by.
We began our evening in Chinatown in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Starting at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, we looked on as thousands of worshipers began their procession at midnight. The long snake of people would walk for 15 km behind the Silver Chariot carrying the idol of Lord Murugan before their arrival at the base of the Batu Caves.
We arrive at the Batu Caves by local bus late in the night. It is a spectacular sight. A neon lit midway and Ferris wheel are set up at the base of the high cliffs. Vendors line the path of the procession as thousands of people make their way to the steps of the Batu Cave. The modern lights are a strange contrast to the ancient ceremony.
The rhythm of the drums is intoxicating and people are chanting Vel Vel as worshippers continuously walk by. Sometimes devotees will break into a wild dance or let out a primal scream. Their wide eyes see through me as I snap my camera and I am amazed at how easily they float through the thick crowd.
The celebration continues though to the next day and worshippers are committed as ever, but the intense sun makes the task seem more impossible. One-man begins to foam at the mouth before collapsing under the weight of his Kevadi and another sways and tries to soothe his pierced cheeks while others pour water over his head. Miraculously however, very few people seem to be in pain or discomfort.
We join the procession feeling braver under the bright sky and make our way up the steep flight of stairs with thousands of other people. It is a relief to reach the cool darkness of the caves. Monkeys fight for bananas overhead, as people have their hooks removed one by one. Priests stuff hot ash into their wounds and not a drop of blood spills from the body.
In a roped off area, each person awakes from their trance. Some people faint, some people wail and scream, while others remain silent and still. Their ordeal is over and burdens are lifted. The cave is now quiet and calm, a contrast to the enormous energy and excitement of outside. It seems odd to watch people talking casually and laughing with each other after witnessing such a shocking event. The festival has come to an end and the only thing left is the long procession back to Kuala Lumpur where the Silver Chariot will return to it’s home until next years ceremony.
People will resume their lives as bankers or students, fathers and sisters feeling cleansed of their sins, released of their burdens and grateful for the opportunity to thank their Lord for a wish that he has granted.