‘Look, tourists have come,’ said a small, skinny Indian boy as I stepped foot from the train and made my way into the crowds.
I looked around, he was right. Surrounding me were hundreds of people, all dressed up in bright yellow garments like the sun had exploded and released balls of fiery light across the landscape. There wasn’t another tourist in sight.
My visit to the Batu Caves had coincided with the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a festival that pays particular homage to the Hindu God Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva (the destroyer) and his wife Parvati. It celebrates the giving of a spear (Vel) from Parvati to her son, enabling him to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman. Arriving at this time was an unexpected, but very welcome, coincidence.
The walkway from the train to the iconic gold statue of the worshipped deity, Lord Murugan, was aligned with stalls selling everything from Indian sweets, to multi coloured bangles, saris and masala chai. Bangra music was booming out of the speakers. The sky was a blended swirl of grey and purple, the sun slowly climbing on the horizon. The Batu Caves had come alive with a rainbow of colour and festivities.
I approached the 272 steps and started the climb with pilgrims, old and young, the continuous mantra of ‘Vel, Vel’ drifting through the warm air. My steps subconsciously fell into the rhythm of the chants. The heat was intense, despite the fact that we were still in the limbo of dawn, not yet day, but no longer night.
I made it to the top where a man standing there with a smile on his face informed me that I looked tired, yet I had climbed the steps with only a small backpack. Behind me were Hindu devotees making the same journey carrying very heavy looking, and very large, structures containing images of Hindu God’s known as Kavadi on their shoulders. They, on the other hand, did not look tired. They looked fiercely determined, marching up the steps with adrenaline pumping through their veins. If they were feeling any pain or exhaustion their faces did not show it, they were masked in sheer strength. Thaipusam, you see, is a time for paying penance to Lord Murugan, a time of thanksgiving and some people even pierce their skin and tongues with vel skewers, although nothing as dramatic was visible during my time there.
Inside the cave was full to bursting, as the pilgrims who had made it to the top amalgamated together forming what looked like a lemon spotted sea. One by one they reached the temple to be blessed by the awaiting Brahmin priests. The Hindu followers had ignited a flame and now the blaze was soaring, the heats, chants, the colours, intoxicated the mind, transporting me into a devotional trance.
I stood in awe, feeling incredibly lucky that I was able to observe such a spectacular display of faith. I have never witnessed such an intense, and large, display of devotion. The colours and the emotion that engulfed this famous pilgrimage site will never leave me.
But I wonder if it was a coincidence that I had stumbled into the cave the very moment Lord Murugan’s soul had returned. Or was this spiritual pilgrim, who is fascinated by Hinduism and its many God’s, directed there by a higher power? I may never know the answer to these questions, but whether it was by destiny or chance, I do know one thing, I am glad that I got to be a spectator to something so profoundly magical.