KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA, February 7, 2007: The mobs of crowd at Batu Caves and the weight of a wooden kavadi decorated with blue and purple trimmings had taken its toll on 10-year-old Kalaiarasi Moorthy. Her mother held her tightly at the arms and chanted, "Vel, Vel", in encouragement. Her face was contorted in exhaustion, but Kalaiarasi echoed her mother's chants softly, and persevered. Kalaiarasi was determined to complete the hour-long procession, and climb up 272 steps to the shrine where she will make a prayer to Muruga for her studies. "It was painful on the way up but I'm okay once I've reached the top," said Kalaiarasi, who has borne a kavadi for the past three years. Her religious parents have always nurtured her spirituality, and supported her efforts throughout the arduous journey.
Nagarajan Karupanan has broader shoulders to bear his kavadi. He also had has his tongue pierced and carried pots of milk (paal kodam) in observing Thaipusam before. However, he could not help but be apprehensive the day before the celebrations this year. "My wish is bigger this year, for my studies and family, so I vowed to carry the kavadi. I was a little excited and nervous the day before Thaipusam, unsure if I had broken any pantang (prohibition) or not. I was very glad when I reached the top," said Nagarajan. Thaipusam for the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia undergraduate actually began 40 days prior to the big day, when he started fasting and praying to prepare him for the penance he will carry out on Thaipusam. Devotees abstain from the secular, and strive to achieve a higher level of spiritualism by devoting themselves to prayers and meditation. The cleansing ritual includes denying themselves pleasures such as sex, alcohol, smoking and clubbing.
Ganesh Muniandy, 26, abstained from sports, his favorite activity, in preparation for Thaipusam. "It was hard at the beginning but once you get used to it, you don't see the difference," said Ganesh, who has participated in this yearly affair for most of his adulthood. As he spoke, he poured little jars of milk into a large canister before joining the long queue leading to an image of Muruga. The little jars, prepared with the help of two friends in the wee hours of Thaipusam, were hooked on his back during the procession while he was in a trance.
More than a million Hindu devotees converge at Batu Caves every year to offer sacrifices to Muruga, in thanksgiving and to fulfill their vows. There is a reason for every form of sacrificial action, be it shaving their head, carrying paal kodam or piercing of the body parts. It demonstrates their faith and devotion to the Gods, and this often involves endurance.
Landscape worker Ganesan Vailu, 20, pierced his cheek with a foot-long skewer called karagam to fulfill a life-long vow after his father recovered from a heart attack. "I wasn't afraid, and it wasn't painful because I was in a trance. I only came to realization after the skewer was removed and they prayed for the spirit to come out from me. I'm glad everything ended well and I've fulfilled my vow. I can still eat as usual and the wounds will heal in three to four days," said Ganesan, a devout Hindu. Ganesan only remembers the priest tying a saffron cloth around his wrist, signifying his readiness for the spirit to enter his body. Once he is in a trance, his spirits achieves transcendence over his body, and he would not feel any sensation during the period. After the spirit left him at the cave, his physical senses returned and he had to rest for 10 minutes before walking, aided by his mother and a friend.
For many devotees, Thaipusam is also a time of joyous and reverent thanksgiving. Vigneswari Pakiry, 27, and her husband Navanithan Mothu, 30, took the strenuous journey of carrying their newborn baby on a cradle made from yellow cloth - the colour of Muruga - tied to a bundle of sugar cane. Perspiring and panting on the steep steps, the couple carried each end of the sugar cane on their shoulders. "We have been praying for a child for three years. Three weeks after we came here to pray last year, I was pregnant. I knew I would come back here," said Vigneswari, smiling from ear to ear. She is now mother of three-month-old chubby Shathivel.
Preparing for Thaipusam is not always smooth sailing, like in Shasikala Tirnatho's case. Not of an athletic fit, her college friends were in disbelief when she told them she was going to carry a kavadi for the first time. "They said, 'habislah you' (you're doomed) so I must prove to them I can make it," said the 19-year-old IT student. To make things worse, she was almost left without a kavadi to carry. Her father rushed from the kavadi shop to the supplier, and caught a lorry transporting a full load of kavadis away just in time to buy her one. "So tension. We only got the kavadi at the last minute although we ordered it a month earlier," recall Shasikala, who came from Seremban to offer her prayers and sacrifices for her family and ailing grandmother's well-being. "Maybe God is helping me. It's a big relief," she said. "I can't forget this experience. I thought I might fall on the stairs but now I've reached here (at the top)."