Chasing Festivals in Malaysia: In a trance at Thaipusam

I’ve always wanted to spout this proclaimer-

WARNING: some of the following images may disturb or upset some viewers.

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Gods – in whatever mould or brand they are believed in- inspire people to do strange, incredible and otherworldly things.

He/ she has begun and finished wars, inspired individuals to contribute their lives to dedication. Muslims cross continents to reach Mecca, Christians worship a man in white robes like groupies at a rock concert, Jews have fought for generations to reclaim their original “Holy Land’’, Buddhist monks go for years in vows of silence not speaking a word and Mormons traipse all over the place to knock on people’s doors only to have it slammed in their face...all in the name of God. I mean, He/ she always gets a mention at the Oscars.

What I witnessed at the largest Hindu festival in the world, Thaipusam, was one of the most incredible displays of religious devotion I have ever seen or heard of.

On this occasion, the Gods of the Hindu world inspired 1.5 million Indians from around the world, especially those originating from the Tamil south of India, to travel to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to make a pilgrimage from the Malaysian capital to the sacred Batu Caves, 15 kilometres out of town.

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Thaipusam is a Hindu festival, celebrated mostly by Tamil Indians. Ironically, the festival is banned in it’s birthplace, India, but celebrated elaborately in Malaysia, where austerity is dominant through it’s Islamic majority.

 This is a festival not for those with a weak stomach. While travelling you see many sights that tap your sheltered western perceptions on the shoulder and scream- LOOK AT ME! Poverty, cruelty etc. For the first time in my travels, I was challenged to look, and not look away.

Thaipusam is an extreme festival where devotees strive for transcendence into an immortal state through self mutilation, painful body piercings and displays of incredible endurance. The worshippers believe that their God Muruga- who is the God the shindig is thrown for- will be pleased in their displays of self sacrifice, suffering and devotion.

After being stuffed into the metro like a fat kids lunchbox we were relieved to arrive at the Batu Caves, which is the end destination for the pilgrims before they climb the 270 odd steps to the Hindu temple inside the cave.

Once a thousand odd people, mostly Indians and curious tourists, spilled out of the metro wagon we weaved our way through food stalls and dress shops booming Bollywood music to where the pilgrims were entering the caves.

I wasn’t sure whether the ugly indigestion of revulsion and the cringing was politically correct or culturally sensitive but they came to me more naturally than a smile. Throngs of devotees with glazed over eyes, zombielike, marched past chanting, some banging their feet on the ground to sound the bells wrapped around them. A man walks past with a steel rod through his face. A larger lady with red paste dripping from her mouth has a thin needle threaded through her tongue, while she balances a silver jug of milk on her head. Another is stooped over with hooks pulling at the skin on his back. The hooks are attached to a heavy object on wheels. I already feel drugged by the incense and cigar smoke in filling the air. Some observers have said in the past that they too have fallen into a trance.

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I am told that they are able to tolerate this ordeal of pain as they are in a trance-like state. There is no blood to be seen. Participants prepare themselves for this day undergoing specific rites during the preceding month and a special vegetarian diet.

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Naked in the Jungle tracking elephant poo

 
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There is something that attracts us all to the notion of returning to the wild and adventuring beyond where the power lines end. I use the operative word “returning,” assuming that Darwin was right - that we all evolved from a bunch of bare assed baboons in the first place.  

While not all of our calling back to the wild comes to us in the form of the echo of a long drop toilet and the idea of having just a bit of tent canvas between us and the elements, some of us return by booking ourselves into eco resorts that are buried like bubbles in the wild, where one can immerse themself in the illusion of the wild but still crack open a can of coca cola on their room’s balcony at the end of the day. Nevertheless, there is still that urge to return to the wild.

After a couple of nights trekking and sleeping alone within Taman Negara, one of the last remaining patches of jungle on what is now almost the bald peninsula of Malaysia, I found myself craving that coca cola.

Now while the wild calls to us, it usually spits us out when we get there. The Malaysian jungle spat me out like a ball of chewing gum- mangled and dripping with jungle saliva. I am not built for the jungle.

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What is UPickAPath?...

This is no ordinary travel blog and I am travelling in no ordinary fashion.

I am a journalist who made one final decision before boarding a plane in Australia destined for South East Asia - that I would surrender all decision-making on my travels and hand it over to others- including your most capable hands.

The choices I make and the path I take is determined by you. From what I eat, where I sleep, how I experience situations, the decisions I take whenever faced with the glorious conundrums of travel.

Consider me a traveling puppet on strings and you are the puppetours.

 

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“Put the fun back in fundamentalism!”

-A Manchester boy, Thailand.

 

 

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