Running Wild: Thaipusam Festival
What’s it like to witness the customs and rituals of Malaysia’s yearly Thaipusam Festival? Find out as Clayton shares the experience from the shoot on Chefs Run Wild.
It was 6 a.m. as I lagged behind Chad and Lyndon through the seedy streets of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. We were searching for a taxi that would take us to the Batu Caves for the religious festival Thaipusam.
To be honest, I had no clue what to expect from the festival. I left most of that planning up to them, the logistics guys. I did, however, know that both of them had been excited about Thaipusam for weeks, and so did every taxi driver that we approached to take us there. Unfortunately in Asia, when someone knows that you really want a product or service, the price doubles or triples – instantly. “I guess it’s a bus then, eh?” I shouted irritably.
After about 25 minutes on the bus the sun appeared, and in the distance we could see a beautiful golden Hindu statue which appeared to be about 150 feet high amid a backdrop of stunning limestone caves. As we drew closer, we saw what looked to be tens of thousands of devotees climbing a staircase up to the entrance of the cave.
We jumped out of the bus and began following the procession to the bottom of the staircase. We could not believe what we were seeing. With every turn of our heads we saw something that shocked us, only to be outdone with the next turn of our head. From women carrying earns of milk on their heads, to men spinning in circles in costumes which consisted of an elaborately decorated canopies carried on their shoulders. Others with shaved heads pulled tractor-sized shrines by ropes with hooks that pierced their bodies.
After climbing the 300 or so stairs, we were in the cave and there, things only got more interesting. The crowds were immense, the lighting was stunning, and the smell of coconut and incense filled the space. Over a loudspeaker in the cave was the over distorted eerie chanting of “1-2-3-4-5” followed by high-pitched feedback, much like the sound made when holding an electric guitar to close to an amplifier. Loud screams were also prevalent seconds before the most devoted fell into a shock-induced trance.
We left the cave and were about to start our journey home when we saw a 230lb man being horizontally hoisted off the ground. Supported by only hooks skewering his flesh, 50 or so of his friends stood by, cheering him on. If it’s a common belief that the more pain endured, the more merit gained, then this guy most certainly had a free ticket straight to Hindu heaven!
As I look back now, I know that even if I had previously educated myself on what the Thaipusam festival entailed as Chad and Lyndon had, I still would have never been prepared for what I had witnessed that day.