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I write verbose posts about polyamory, love, lust, and self-discovery on my other blog Victoria's Imaginarium.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kavadi, the most distinct feature of Thaipusam

As hinted before in Preview + Food, here is the 1st post about Thaipusam. This post is going to be quite academics-toned as this way is easier for me now (I'm currently in menstrual emo-ness). The 2nd post will be about the process of 'sardination' (lol)--- how we squeezed through the crowd, reached the staircases, climbed up, walked into Batu Caves and finally left.

Batu Caves is a limestone hill, which has a series of caves and cave temples, located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It takes its name from the Sungai Batu or Batu River, which flows past the hill. Batu Caves is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, dedicated to Lord Murugan. It is the focal point of Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia. My friends and I went to experience the festival as they needed to hand in report for World Religion class while I wanted to have something to write about in my blog. Like we expected, Kavadi was undoubtedly the most distinct feature we could spot in this festival.

Kavadi Attam is a dance performed by the devotees during the ceremonial worship of Murugan, the Tamil God of War. It emphasizes debt bondage. The Kavadi itself is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from the God Murugan. Generally, Hindus take a vow to offer a kavadi to idol for the purpose of tiding over or averting a great calamity. For instance, if the devotee's son is laid up with a fatal disease, he would pray to Shanmuga to grant the boy a lease of life in return for which the devotee would take a vow to dedicate a kavadi to Him.

The preparations start 48 days prior to the two day Thaipusam festival. The devotees purge themselves of all mental and physical impurities. They take only one vegetarian meal per day and 24 hours prior to Thaipusam, they must maintain a complete fast. The devotees prepare themselves by following strict purification austerities that include:

  • Transcendence of desire
  • Following a vegetarian diet and refraining from alcohol
  • Sexual abstinence
  • Bathing in cold water
  • Sleeping on the floor
  • Regular prayers
  • Shaving of the head

Usually, shaving of the head will be done on the day of Thaipusam. There was a barber stall at a roadside outside Batu Caves which was carpeted by hair (lame joke failed haha). No picture was taken due to insecure-looking environment, I did not dare enough to take my camera out and was holding my bag very tight while walking towards Batu Caves.

And I noticed that...

Something was applied on the freshly-shaved heads! According to my Hindu friend, Vemala, it provided cooling and soothing effect to the skin.

The simplest form of kavadi:

Along the squeezing we clueless Chinese kids were guessing about the content of those pots. Our guess was coconut milk--very near to the answer. Finally the answer was revealed when we saw a male Hindu refilled the pot carried by his wife by pouring in Dutch Lady milk... So yeah, those were jugs of milk, Pal Kavadi. I think they carried the pots on their heads because it was easier as the place was crowded? This gesture seemed very traditional to me.

We couldn't help feeling amused when we saw the following scene:

Not that we had never seen any hairy men okay. It's natural to feel that way la you know we Chinese are almost hairless... I'm one exception though.

The Kavadi consists of two semicircular pieces of wood or steel which are bent and attached to a cross structure that can be balanced on the shoulders of the devotee, later be carried to the temple. It is often decorated with flowers, peacock feathers (the vehicle of God Murugan) among other things. Some of the Kavadis can weigh up to 30 kg! In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheeks reminds him constantly of Lord Murugan. It also prevents him from speaking and gives great power of endurance.

Image of God Murugan

And I bet after you non-Hindus see all these pictures, we all will feel the same way...

... pity the peacocks!!!

Some kavadis were very flourish and colorful:

This one was very tall. The devotees carrying those kavadis shown above were surrounded by their male relatives and friends, so that if they went off balance, these people around could help them stabilize the kavadis. These people as well served as human barriers to prevent the crowd from knocking into the kavadi-carriers. Mind you, they had been eating only 1 vegetarian meal for 48 days and had complete fast the day before Thaipusam, it really was an extreme challenge to both their physical and spiritual states.

There were also some lighter, smaller kavadis:

The black smoke came from charcoals another male devotee carried. The smell of the smoke was very choking. I'm not too sure but I think that was considered kavadi too.

The most spectacular practice is the vel kavadi, essentially a portable altar up to two meters tall, decorated with peacock feathers and attached to the devotee through 108 vels pierced into the skin on the chest and back. Fire walking and flagellation may also be practiced. It is claimed that devotees are able to enter a trance, feel no pain, do not bleed from their wounds and have no scars left behind.

Other types of kavadi involve hooks stuck into the back and either pulled by another walking behind or being hung from a decorated bullock cart or more recently a tractor, with the point of incisions of the hooks varying the level of pain. The greater the pain the more god-earned merit.

This was quite mild, as the weight were more on the rope and chains tied to the waist of the devotee.

This one must be very painful... ouch!

And later we saw another amusing scene:

Ker Ming: "Wah seems very mouth-watering leh... If I pluck one off his back to eat, will he turn around and cucuk (pierce) me?"

Of course in the end we did not try plucking off any fruit la. Very not try-able since we were minorities there.

I think the next few posts are going to be short and casual or emotional... Let's hope it won't take too long until I write the 2nd part about Thaipusam.



  1. Very insightful post. Have never been to Batu Caves during Thaipusam myself. Based on your photos, it appears that the kind of kavadis in Batu Caves are not to be found in many other temples in Malaysia. Some of the pics were an eye opener for me.

  2. It was pretty eye opening for me too. You should go there if you have the chance to, the whole process will impact you spiritually.

    I wrote another 2 posts about my Thaipusam experience, the links were just added to the bottom of this post, take a look if you're interested :)