My father-in-law Chris and I set out at 5am by-way of 140mph insane taxi driver for the Batu Caves, just north of Kuala Lumpur, to witness the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The clean version of the tale is that the celebration commemorates the giving of a vel (spear) to the deity Murugan, the Tamil god of war, (also known as Skanda) so that he could vanquish the demon Soorapadman on behalf of the devas (deities). In preparation for the festival, those devotees who have vowed to offer a kavadi in return for deliverance from a calamity in their life engage in a 48-day period of fasting on special vegetarian food (satvik) while continuously meditating upon a deity. On the day of the festival, their heads are shaved and after prayers and rituals, the kavadi (a large circular float carried on the shoulders) is taken up and carried along a pilgrimage route, finally to be offered in the shrine or temple of Murugan. Often, as a sign of penance and/or devotion, and as a way to attain greater merit for one's self and family, the devotee will allow him or herself to be pierced by hooks and chains, which can be attached to the kavadi or hung with additional offerings of fruits or prayer bells. Malaysia's Batu Caves are one of the major sites for the celebration of Thaipusam. That's the clean version.
The reality of Thaipusam exceeds words, and the experience of its meaning saturates even the most vivd photographs. When we arrived in the darkness of early morning, drumbeats pounded primal rhythms from every direction as singers and celebrants chanted and wailed. The sound of jingling bells danced about us. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man lay hands on a young woman, showering ash and oil upon her forehead, before feeding her a block of incense - fire-end first, while her eyes rolled back in her head and she began to dance. Processions of safron-clothed men and women carrying large silver urns on their heads, their feet treading on the waste and refuse of over two million people who had been celebrating for the five days previous to our arrival, wove their way through the pressing throngs of Indians of every shape, size, hue, and disposition. Children and women slept on the dirty concrete, while others stood along the stairs leading up the cave, red-eyed yet awe-struck by the men whose bulging eyes gazed about as if in search of something invisible and tormenting, while young men pulled tightly upon the bungey chords that were connected to the entranced by hooks in their backs. There was no blood. Devotees seemed to feel more fatigue than pain, often swaying under the heavy load of the kavadis until one of their entourage quickly sidled up behind them crying "stool stool stool!" before guiding the weary traveler to a seated position. Before each pilgrim, a troop of drummers and singers channelled the very essence of the waters from before the time when the void was given form, wrapping the faithful in cloaks of ecstasy and prayer. A man strode past, a large cigar dangling from his lips - attached to his hooks was a large cart, upon which sat his son, painted blue and fast asleep next to an image of Krishna and Murugan. Above us loomed the 203 stairs climbing to the awesome limestone cathedral of the Batu Caves, while behind us, as far as the eye could see, seethed an ocean of humanity, of music, of incense, of devotion.
We walked further. A carnival was set up next to endless stalls of street-vendors hawking purses, watches, incense, piercings, and infinite varieties of curry and satay. Below a highway overpass in the sewage-brown waters of the railway drainage canal, a mass of shirtless men stood like kingfishers gazing intently at a holy man in white, who offered blessings of purification, mere meters away from a family, gathered in prayer around the father, who sits stoicly breathing in incense and eating strange leaves that may or may not have anesthetic qualities while behind him, barefoot in a trash-filled gutter, a man in red inserts row after row of silver hooks connected by chains about his spine. The father's eyes are closed until, at the crucial moment, the piercer stands before him, bids him open his mouth, and in one swift, terrible movement of precision, drives a small spear through his tongue, sealing his lips and initiating a trance-like state that overflows into a whirling dance in which his spirit is no longer his own, and he can hold a mountain of offerings upon his narrow shoulders, enough to pay the debt he owes for whatever grace moved him to swear any vows at all. Around him, like hipster paparazzi, stands a circle of young Malaysians and Chinese who wear their own ritual adornment of bright yellow Nikon and Canon camera-straps, eager to decipher the essence of the mystery and carry home the exotic. I stand back at a distance. I do not know if I am in Babylon or in Batu. I cross myself and whisper Salve Reginas and the Kyrie. This is all much bigger than me.