Experiencing The Thaipusam Festival

It was that time again…..I scrolled down my bucket list.  I stopped when I came across the the Thaipusam festival.  The Hindu festival of ‘Thaipusam’a celebration of faith and atonement, was quickly approaching.  The exotic and colorful tribute to Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, is celebrated during the full moon of late February.

South East Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and other Hindu-Tamil populations observe this exciting and exotic holiday of devotion.

Thaipusam, a journey of Faith. man praying
Thaipusam, a journey of Faith. Ron Veto

Evidence of this devotion is the mutilation of flesh as the mass of devotees parade to the sacred Batu Cave for redemption.

Thaipusam Festival - body mutilation

It was time to pull back the curtain of Thaipusam, dig out my backpack and start doing my travel homework. Intel is key to a fun and successful photo safari. Learning about the landmarks, history and the exciting details of my destination makes me anxious to get out there.

I packed my two trusty Nikon D700’s, my older Nikon FM, pet the cat, and boarded a plane to Singapore.
I carry no zooms. My six 1982 Nikon AI prime lenses have the look I like. Be it lens characteristics, color, or clarity, I stay fiercely loyal to the older glass, even though I fully appreciate the amazing options of the new technology.

The ‘82 lenses are native to the Nikon FM (film) camera. Thankfully the lens mount is identical to adapt to my digital D-700’s, This makes a super user friendly combo.The only drawback is that the light meter on the D-700 is non functional. The D-700’s becomes a totally manual camera. Not a problem.

worshipper at Thaipusam festival

It takes some work, but I always try to crop my images within lens. With the availability of today’s hi-tech cameras it takes some dedication to carry around such a large camera package. Substituting extra underwear for lenses, I can’t get lazy. It keeps me thinking and moving all the time searching for that elusive perfect composition.

My standard lens package includes, Nikon’s 12mm, 20mm, 35mm, 50mm 105mm, and a 300 mm with a doubler to 600mm. This combo of film and digital lets me appreciate the beauty of film and also enjoy the creative freedom of digital capture. It’s fun. Day or night, I can always be stress free and in the fight.

man getting head shaved at Thaipusam
The faithful sacrifice by shaving their heads in the name of atonement and redemption. To remain pure many observe celibacy and fast for weeks beforehand

“Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be”. ~ Anthony Bourdain

My Journey Starts to The Thaipusam Festival

This journey begins in Singapore. Singapore is a great destination to kick off any journey into South/East Asia. It’s central location makes it an idea travel hub south to Indo/Bali or north into Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. It’s a stunningly beautiful and clean city.

I took a air-con delux bus from Singapore north to Kuala Lumpur. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur the city was alive and buzzing with electricity.  It’s a foodies paradise. Areas such as Chinatown and Little India offer some of the best food in all of South East Asia.

The British rule is still evident among the beautiful colonial government architecture.  KL was built on a swamp so the humidity can be brutal. The most enjoyable way to experience this city is with an early morning walk thru it’s many landmarks.

As a bonus, if you enjoy the history and feel of the lost British Raj like I, you will love this city. Finding a nice cup of milk tea is appreciated.

At midnight, thousands of worshippers gather on Petaling Street at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in KL Chinatown
At midnight, thousands of worshippers gather on Petaling Street at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in KL Chinatown

Weeks prior, devoted Hindus prepare for the Thaipusam Festival by fasting and living a spiritual lifestyle. Just past midnight on the first night, 100,000 people gather at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Chinatown. The procession follows the Golden Chariot as it slowly weaves it’s way thru the city on it’s 9 mile trek to the caves.

All souls, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, join in this parade. I was so happy to be a part of it. People are passing out food, water, sweet milk and candy. A word of advise. Easy on the sweet milk.

The Golden Chariot carries the Temples’ high priests, and more important, a statue of the Lord Subramanian to be delivered to the caves
The Golden Chariot carries the Temples’ high priests, and more important, a statue of the Lord Subramanian to be delivered to the caves

Later the next day the Golden chariot finally arrives, the exciting climax begins. Two days of non- stop celebrations that would push my endurance to exhaustion. The celebration isn’t for the weak of heart.

The pain is masked by the Holymans’ induced trance. At this time the hooks, spikes and rails are inserted into the human body and the spiritual journey begins.
Many devotees have small trident lances inserted thru their tongue, mouth and back.

On the shoulders thousands of devotees carry large kavadis which are made of metal and can weigh as much as 90 lbs. Witnessing the devotees suffer this quest reinforces and demonstrates the power of their faith. Everyone is chanting, drums are drumming and everyone is singing and praying. The scene is surreal with color, faith and excitement.

Most are shoeless. Faith fills the air.
Most are shoeless. Faith fills the air.

To shoot the night events and the low light cave conditions I brought along a small lightweight battery powered LED light bank.

I mounted it on the top of my cameras’ with Velcro and rubber bands. I experimented with various photo diffusion to soften the shadows. Any thin paper will work to taste. I’ve even used peach colored toilet paper because it provided a nice warm color.

The LED unit came in handy shooting people at night and portraits inside the caves. With a working range of 5’ to 7’ the LED was very helpful photographing people. I controlled the splash of a the light source with black foil to contain and highlight my subjects. The LED lightbank rewarded me with nice catchlights in the eyes that would have otherwise been black. It’s a fun tool.

Step by step the procession slowly climbs the 242 stairs up to the impressive entrance of the Batu Caves. Hydration is very important. Once you enter the main cave the natural air con kicks in. I took a much needed break to remove my pack and lie on the cool floor. Along the stair climb, there was an abundant supply of medical stations and the nurses were busy helping the masses.

A couple of times I hit the wall and had to sit on the stairs, halfway up the stairs, exhausted. People are patient and everyone helps each other along the way. With thousands behind you offering water, shade or a warm smile I was motivated with a certain power to continue upwards.

Inside the secondary cave, Hanuman sits atop a temple roof as he stares at the people below.
Inside the secondary cave, Hanuman sits atop a temple roof as he stares at the people below.

Thaipusam a mixture of tourist, believers and extreme believers celebrating this religious passage. It’s difficult to leave this powerful festival. You simply don’t want to miss anything.
My adrenaline had been pumping for days now. The masses keep coming and coming.

I slowly make my way back to the train station, passing the oncoming crowd. We pass thousands as they head towards the 242 stairs to the top of the Batu cave. The train ride back to Kuala Lumpur was packed with exhausted devotees sleeping on their feet.

Happy to finish his journey, this devotee throws me the “peace sign”.
Happy to finish his journey, this devotee throws me the “peace sign”.

They have starved themselves and bled in the name of redemption. In a very small way I too felt a sense of accomplishment. I needed to push both my mind and body to hopefully better myself among fierce believers of faith. I can only hope that my contact with Thaipusam has made me a better person.

The devotees can now relax and go on with their lives, sins resolved…until the same time next year when the Thaipusam Festival begins again.

Author – Ron Veto   ronvetophotographs.com


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