Batu Caves for the Thaipusam Festival: Worth It?
I guess it's pretty typical. You tend not to see the tourist attractions of your own city, because you take it for granted. I mean, I've been to the famous Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur once before - but only because a new foreign friend wanted to see it. So when my colleague - herself newly returned from diaspora - suggested going to Batu Caves on Thaipusam day, I figured, if not now, then when?
So here's what that was like!
- The Hindu Festival of Thaipusam
- Getting to Batu Caves
- Getting to Batu Caves, on Thaipusam day
- Kavadi Procession at Batu Caves on Thaipusam
- The Thaipusam Market of Batu Caves
- Leaving Batu Caves by Taxi
- So, is Batu Caves on Thaipusam Day Worth the Trip?
- Tips for Visiting Batu Caves for the Thaipusam Festival
The Hindu Festival of Thaipusam
Not being Hindu myself, my knowledge of Thaipusam is fairly superficial. But in a nutshell, Thaipusam is a Hindu holy day related to the theology around the deity, Lord Muruga.
In Malaysia, the cave temple of Batu Caves is the focal point of the celebration, as it is a temple dedicated to this god. So, devout pilgrims bring offerings to Lord Muruga and make their way to Batu Caves in the days coming up to, and culminating on, Thaipusam day.
One of the more famous features of Thaipusam pilgrimage is the kavadi. This is a rite related to the fulfilment of a supplication made to the deity, and involves some kind of physical burden.
Visually striking, it often involves bearing decorated canopies up to the temple, or pots of milk. Some pilgrims have spears pierced across their cheeks, or hooks upon their flesh. Man, woman, or even child, the devout offer their devotion in this way on Thaipusam.
When is Thaipusam?
The answer to when festivals take place in Malaysia, often confuses foreigners. For many holidays, just because it was a certain date when someone else came here, does not mean that next year it is that date again.
Most people will explain by saying, the dates 'move'. In reality, none of the dates of these holidays 'move'. They all stay on the same date, every year - when considered against their own calendar. This includes Hindu festivals like Thaipusam.
You see, when you ask, 'when is such and such festival', what you're really asking is, 'give me the date in my calendar'. And so, it appears to move, because they all reckon years differently, have different rules in deciding when a holy day is, and the lunar ones correct against the solar Gregorian calendar differently (or in the case of the Islamic calendar - not at all).
In Malaysia there is not one calendar used by the people - we have at least four! Check local holiday timing before booking your flights!
Thaipusam occurs in the early part of the year, in the Tamil month of Thai, which corresponds to a day in late January to early February.
Getting to Batu Caves
It is easy to get to Batu Caves from the more central parts of Kuala Lumpur.
The cheapest option is by train, via the Komuter rail service. It's pretty easy to figure out, since Batu Caves is the terminus station of one of the two lines. The Komuter train can be boarded from KL Sentral station.
Of course you can also get there by road - either taxi, GrabCar, or bus, in declining order of expense. But if I was going by road, I might as well take Grab rather than the bus, to be honest.
If you have your own car, you can also easily drive there, and park in the area next to the cave steps.
The KL Hop On Hop Off double decker tourist bus also goes to Batu Caves. You can get tickets at their number 1 stop in the trendy district of Bukit Bintang.
Getting to Batu Caves, on Thaipusam day
While it is quite straightforward to get to Batu Caves, there are a few considerations if you are going on Thaipusam day. Thaipusam is a major pilgrimage festival, to a temple site that is in a fairly dense urban location. Pilgrims don't just come from around Malaysia, but from elsewhere in the region as well - maybe beyond. I even saw a clearly Caucasian Hindu pilgrim, bearing a kavadi offering in the procession.
I would not - repeat, not - go by car on Thaipusam day. The open spaces before the temple have festival market stalls set up, and there will be many actual participants who will quickly occupy parking spaces anywhere near the vicinity. You could try to find a parking spot, but the more pertinent question is, why would you torture yourself in this way??
The public transport options are all still in play. On Thaipusam day, the area around the temple is super congested, so your taxi or Grab would still have to battle through the traffic. If you go with the train option, you'll skip the road congestion, but the crowds on the train platforms are overwhelming!
We went by train to Batu Caves, but decided to find a taxi for the return journey.
What is it like to take the Komuter train to Batu Caves, on Thaipusam?
The Komuter train line to Batu Caves carries passengers from its starting station in the further southern suburbs of the Greater Klang Valley. Generally they are intended to ferry commuters from the suburbs, and pour them out at various business districts of Kuala Lumpur.
But on Thaipusam, this is not what happens. By the time it gets to KL Sentral, it is more than likely that the trains are already carrying a full load of pilgrims from all the previous stops. I'm not sure there even are non-pilgrim passengers on this day, on that route! They might be so full, you might have to pass on one or two trains. Unlike other days, nobody is getting off at KL Sentral.
There was eventually a train car we thought we could push into, and squished ourselves in.
When you get to Batu Caves, there will be so many passengers all getting off at the same station, which ordinarily gets nowhere near that amount of people. So many, that they had an on/off system at the platform to manage the huge crowds.
The entire platform is completely cleared, before the arriving train doors open. Then, everyone arriving must exit the station completely and immediately. Only then are the crowds outside the station waiting to get on, allowed to enter to board the departing train. If you linger on the platform, you might be crushed by this reverse flow.
Kavadi Procession at Batu Caves on Thaipusam
The main attraction of the Thaipusam celebration at Batu Caves, is obviously the kavadi bearers. Brightly coloured floats borne on the backs of devotees, often adorned by flowers and peacock feathers, pass across the plaza in front of the famous long steps of the cave temple. Drummers and dancers, most of them in Indian traditional clothing, fill in the intervals. It's really something to observe!
My colleagues and I managed to make our way close enough where we could see the floats. On the ground, it was quite difficult to see where the procession path is supposed to be. Curious crowds of onlookers and tourists, local and foreign alike, crowd into it so that the kavadi bearers sometimes even had to deviate slightly to avoid them in their path. Cameras on long sticks, cameras close up to the kavadi bearers - height is an advantage here.
People pushed further in, arms snaked through gaps to snap quick photos. Several people nipped into the path to get that coveted frontal approach shot. But new people flood into the spaces they vacate, so that gradually the crowds began to almost merge into the procession.
Tourism and the Fear of Missing Out.
There's something about an atmosphere like that - a colourful and rhythmic procession that's difficult to resist, the strangeness of the offerings that look macabre to the eyes of the non-believer, everyone around you vying to take that shot that would be the most special one of all.
The millennial age has made an acronym for this: FOMO.
I found myself succumbing to the competition as well, and began crowding in too. Why, wasn't I a travel blogger? Isn't it my responsibility?
I only came to my senses when I found myself snapping a close-up photo of a particular kavadi bearer, resting on a stool with his head bowed beneath the heavy canopy that he had borne on his body up to that point, his family giving him water and fanning him.
He was just a boy. A young teenager. When did I get so close? I had not seen the people at all, except only through the display screen.
And I have never done it again since. You could say... when the impulse strikes, I thrust a vel into my ego and kill it.
The Thaipusam Market of Batu Caves
But the kavadi procession is not the only interesting thing about the Thaipusam celebration at Batu Caves. A market springs up in the open plaza around the site before Thaipusam, which ordinarily is the vehicle parking area. The Indian community come out in force.
Stalls upon stalls bedecked with colourful clothing, trails of beads, bangles and bling. Stalls piled with Indian sweets (very sweet!), vibrant in colour. There were even stalls to get your ears pierced, and stalls for henna. And stalls selling just random things as well, like there might be in a typical Asian night market.
I expected Bollywood and Tamil music to be playing from the speakers, but blaring in one corner was I guess... Indian heavy metal?
Some distance away, there were pavilions where devotees prepare themselves. Chairs were laid out, covered in yellow cloth, for male worshipers to get their heads shaved.
Festival organisers and festival-goers
In another part of the market, the obligatory festival address from the local politician was being broadcast.
As I passed by, I heard pieces of it. It recognised the long history of the Indian community in Kuala Lumpur, and the long history of this land with the old land of India. The politician took the moment to announce a new government policy giving a visa waiver for Indian nationals.
I remember wondering how real the promise was, in this pyrite age of convenience politics.
We wandered further away from the temple steps, and one section of the market seemed to have already packed up and left. In their wake, a sight so common following festivals - rubbish.
By the overpass, a local religious organisation had set up a booth area. A man was speaking into the microphone, appealing to municipal workers to quickly clear the overflowing bins.
Leaving Batu Caves by Taxi
We had ambitions of returning the same way we came: by train. But the pavilions giving shade near the train station were completely full. In the increasing heat of the day, we were a lot less in the mood to join the crush, compared to the morning.
So we wandered off to the edges of the market, where the streets were rimmed with long lines of parked cars. Fortunately, we located a taxi before long, and gratefully entered into air-conditioned comfort.
On the way back to the city centre, my colleague asked our taxi guy a bit more about the celebration. (He is Sikh, so we were not expecting him to be in the know. But taxi guys tend to be on a different grapevine.)
He mentioned something about the celebration being a little bit low key that year, because the full moon was an eclipse. He also told us that the main procession bears an idol of Lord Muruga on a silver chariot up to the cave temple.
After a pause, he said that the Penang procession carries the idol on a gold chariot. He didn't know more than that - but he did mention an important Sikh temple in India that was all in gold.
It was later - much, much later - that I learned the gold chariot the taxi driver mentioned was only unveiled that very year. And that it caused quite a controversy!
So, is Batu Caves on Thaipusam Day Worth the Trip?
Batu Caves on normal days is already a popular tourist attraction. But visiting Batu Caves during the Thaipusam celebration is definitely a notable cultural experience, as it is one of the many interesting festivals of Malaysia.
However, there are a few things to think about to make the trip more pleasant, and to be a more responsible festival tourist.
Tips for Visiting Batu Caves for the Thaipusam Festival
- Logistically speaking, all transportation options to Batu Caves are congested on Thaipusam. Ideally, be there beforehand, so that you can just wander over more easily, and be out of the way of commuting believers on the day itself. Aside from sampling the market early, there are other things to explore, different from the typical city centre attractions.
- The immediate area around Batu Caves is uninspiring. But the limestone cave complex of Batu Caves is interesting. Called the Dark Caves, it is managed by the Malaysian Nature Society and up until recently, you can get tours. At the moment, it is closed until further notice.
- Nearby is the Forest Research Institute (FRIM), which hosts a decent acreage of forest, and is on the Tentative List for UNESCO Heritage classification. It's a great location for hikes, picnics, and birdwatching.
- While logistically it is a good idea to be in the general area beforehand, the best case scenario is if you can get an invite to couchsurf with a local in the area. The accommodation options might be in high demand in this period.
- From a sustainability perspective, do bring water bottles and containers with you, to browse the market. This would allow you to ask the stall operators to serve you drinks and sweets into your reusable containers, and help reduce the waste management problems.
- If the (lack of) management of the crowd is still the same when you visit, do remember to give space to the pilgrims, no matter how photogenic they are. Thaipusam is primarily a religious celebration. The kavadi bearers have prepared beforehand with fasts and meditations to be in the right state of mind for their ritual. As a respectful tourist, we should not be overly intrusive.
- While you can still go up to the cave temple on Thaipusam day, I suggest you weigh the reason you want to see it, vs the many devotees who are there for Thaipusam worship.
- I don't want to discourage a seeker, if you might be so inclined. But on the other hand, I think of it like wanting to tour a mosque during Friday prayers, when it's full of worshippers. If you're not there to worship, nor are you drawn to the faith, maybe pick another time? There's always the option to go twice!