Photos by Howard Goldberg
THAIPUSAM AT THE BATU CAVES, SELANGOR, MALAYSIA 2010
Howard Goldberg is an artist, photographer, and adventure traveler based in Los Angeles and New York City. He has been traveling the world solo or as a guide for over 25 years. In that time he has been to some of the most difficult and interesting places on the earth. Traveling in Tibet before it was officially open for tourism he directly witnessed firsthand the brutal executions of the Tibetans by the Chinese military. Later, hitching small planes around Zaire, he experienced the collapse of the Zairean economy and the resulting tribal violence – which landed him a brief stay as a refuge in Central African Republic. Currently Howard is running private or group tours to festivals and the disappearing wonders around the world. Some of these adventures are particularly geared to film makers, photographers and other members of the creative community.
“Vel Vel Shakti VEL!” The crowd loudly chants as musicians beat the drums from sundown to sunrise on the grounds around the Batu Cave. I was exhausted, but it was clear to me that any attempt at grabbing a 4am nap on the crowded sidewalk was going to be futile. A week before this event I had befriended a group of local Tamils living in Kuala Lumpur, and with great generosity and kindness they invited me to share this important ceremony with them. I arrived early in the afternoon just as the festivities were beginning. Prayers and blessings were being made in the temple and the participants were psyching themselves up for their impending exertions as others put the finishing touches on the elaborate kavidis. The kavadi is a large display worn around and above the body. By carrying the kavadi or other physical burdens, the Hindus show their devotion to Murugan, a godfamous for averting disaster and granting luck. It is carried on a harness attached to the waist and resting on the shoulders, and is fabulously decorated with multi-colored flowers, peacock feathers, and sculptures and paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. These can weigh up to 60 kg and are rather unwieldy. I was briefly strapped into one of
these devices and I can tell you that carrying this burden for even a short time in the 90 percent tropical humidity is a serious feat of endurance. Some even take this further by attaching long skewers or hooks to their kavadi which enter into the flesh of the bearers. Families and friends in the Tamil Indian community in Malaysia gather yearly for
this unique celebration which happens during the Tamil month of Thai (January or February) and commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan – the Tamil god of war – a ‘vel’ (spear) so that he could crush his opponent, the demon Soorapadman. Starting in the afternoon – and continuing through the night and into the next
evening – families promenade past the food stalls and displays, and crowds gather in groups around the select participants who have chosen to show their devotion to the god Murugan with painful looking demonstrations of their commitment. During their long walk it is clear that many devotees fall deep into a trance state and occasionally a spirit possession will overtake a member of the crowd or a participant. Dressed in red and yellow the partakers may carry heavy buckets of milk on their heads, hang fruit from fish hooks imbedded in their backs, pierce their tongues or cheeks with metal skewers, or carry their remarkably ornate ‘kavadi’ for the long 2km walk –
past the 43 meter high golden statue of Lord Murugan – and then up the 272 steps into the Batu cave.