A long and overly descriptive post about the Hindu holiday Thaipusam at the Batu Caves, Malaysia.Culture is such a broad theme. Almost any picture you can post invokes the theme “Culture” on some level. Culture isn’t even a uniquely human trait, although we’d like to think so. Defined as, “the act of developing the intellectual and moral facilities, especially by education.” It can, in a sense, apply to an animal population such as these Brazilian Capuchins; who are the only ones in the world who use rocks to crack open palm nuts. Their culture, unique to them, is passed on though generational education, but I digress. When most people hear the word culture, they conjure up images of exotic and quixotic, very rarely of their own mundane world. In truth though, we all have culture. Culture in the broad sense as human beings, in a more narrow sense by your country of origin and/or ethnicity, you can go even smaller in to cliques and hobbies. Sports culture, skater culture, the “fashion world.” All of these places have their own unique culture, specific to and taught by that tiny niche in society. So with a theme like culture, as long as it’s presented properly, almost anything goes.
Although my photos are far from the best, I wanted to share about a trip I took last year to parts of South East Asia, and specifically the culture SHOCK I experienced at the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lampur. The caves themselves are around 400 million years old, but have been used as a sacred place of worship for the last 120 or so. Hacked away from the green grip of the jungle, the caves are famous with Malaysian Hindus and Hindu’s the world over as being the focal point of the religious holiday Thaipusam. Celebrated mostly by the Tamil population it commemorates when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel so he could defeat the evil demon Soorapadman…… or so they say. So on a blisteringly hot February day (no seasons by the equator) my friends and I (foolishly) decided to visit and partake in the holiday festivities.
The fact the hostel manager laughed at us when we told him our plans, and the fact he said he’s been once and that was enough, should have been red flags. If you’ve ever been to any concert or festival you know about the throngs of people who attend them, and it probably conjures up images about the crowds and the lines and the waits and the sweaty body heat of strangers shoved in close, bumping and rubbing up against each other under a relentless summer sun’s blistering heat. This was worse, worse than I could’ve imagined, and far worse then I’ll be able to describe here. From very early morning to our escape some hours later I was claustrophobically encased in a living coffin of sweaty human beings. The reason my pictures aren’t better is that it was so crowded I would have to push the people next to me away just to give myself enough space to lift my arms up to take a picture. So with a few exceptions most of these are shot “from the hip” so to speak.
The air reeked of awful human sweat and was choked with the smoke of burning trash but on occasion was punctuated by sweet coconut or sharp incense. The devotees were draped in colorful orange tunics, many with shaven yellow painted heads, but by far the most “cultural” thing I saw were the worshipers practicing their kavadi. A kavadi is a burden that one is supposed to take on, and while most Hindus take an approach, similar to Catholicism’s Lent, of a promise or a vow that burdens their life (I give up chocolate) these worshipers took on a physical burden in the form of self mutilation. Hooks through skin, chains dangling from flesh, spikes and hoops jabbed through lips and skin. As I compare my pictures to the stills in my memory I am thoroughly disappointed or my inability to capture the atmosphere of that day. This mortification of the flesh, I’ve read involves days of preparation and inducing a trance like state in the devotees, but how someone does not bleed when they are dangling from chained hooks is beyond me. Now THAT’S culture!
After being refused entry into the caves, as non-worshippers and too tired for serious protest we, had to fight our way against the crowds for another several hours which ended up seeming like a walk in the park compared to the frantic refugee evacuation of a train ride we were about to experience. Which we had to take because they blocked off all roads (even highways) in the surrounding area. As a seasoned traveler, especially around East and South East Asia, I would have to say that this was the only time I really felt in any immediate danger; danger of being crushed or trampled to death, or collapsing from heat stroke, or dehydration. If you want to talk about cultural experiences, I have had many, and not all of them are positive.