If you have never been to the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, and you are new to the experience, you might wonder if you should take the kids along. Here is what one mum thinks:
What is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is the Hindu celebration of good defeating evil, told through the story of when Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati ask their son, Lord Murugan, to destroy the demon Tharakasuran, also known as Soorapadman. Lord Murugan takes eleven weapons from his father and one weapon, ‘The Vel’, from his mother, and destroys Tharakasuran on the day of Poosam Nakshatra (a significant alignment of stars) during the Tamil month of Thai.
Why do the devotees do what they do?
To give thanks for their own individual fight of good over evil, devotees carry offerings of fruit, flowers and milk (the simple of purity) – some on heavy Kavadi made of bamboo – and often attached with piercings to the body, to Murugan temples. Others pierce their bodies with hooks, and spear their face and tongues with vel skewers in reconition of ‘The Vel’ given by Parvati.
Each is an act of penance, or an askance of forgiveness for previous transgressions. Devotees who perform penance cleanse themselves in preparation through prayer and fasting – all of which can begin days before Thaipusam.
Do your kids want to join you at Thaipusam?
As part of the uninitiated I was intrigued to find out what really happens at Thaipusam. I had put it off for four years, only because the ordeal of getting there seemed larger that the event itself. However, as my children got older, I thought that it was an important part of our Malaysian life.
So, I did some research, made a plan, and asked my family if they would like to join me for an evening of Thaipusam. All sounds quite simple really, except I was met with a resounding “NO!”
Both of my children had of course heard about the festival, but neither wanted to go. What they had heard had sounded far too removed from the Malaysia they knew, loved and understood.
So, this is my story of Thaipusam without kids, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a place for kids – on the contrary – what I saw and experienced was a family atmosphere of celebration.
Thaipusam is a mass of people. Families, in my case, eating dinner in the outer areas of Batu Caves and children sleeping while grandmothers and mothers, aunts and sisters look on.
There are barbers shaving the heads heads of old and young in preparation for the celebration. There are throngs of people watching, tourists taking photos, and of course, there are the drummers and supporters of the devotees, that so many come to see.
The devotees, some of them children themselves, dance and gyrate in a trance-like state – some appear almost in ecstasy – while bearing their burdens to offer to Lord Murugan. The drumming, the dancing, the crowds, the smells of cooking take you far from modern day Kuala Lumpur and transport you to Batu Caves which are almost surreal. This is a heaving mass of humanity transfixed on the worship of the deity, Lord Murugan, and it is difficult not to be transported with them.
What will the kids think?
If you are not Hindu then your children may not be fully conversant with Thaipusam, therefore prepare them before you go.
- Talk to your children about the festival. Explain the story and let them know why the devotees piece their bodies and carry their burdens.
- Find video and images of the celebration. While one of my children was open to photos, the other categorically refused.
- Talk to friends who have been before and those who go regularly – get the children’s perspective – not that it was especially useful for my plight.
- And, most importantly try to get them on board, and as prepared for the experience as you can – let them know that you may not know what to expect, but it is a place of worship and celebration.
How will you get there?
- I drove. We arrived a 9 pm in the evening and left about midnight. I parked as others parked, along the side of the main road, and walked 10 minutes to get to Batu Caves. As we left the roads were jammed but the major highways still allowed room to navigate our way out.
- The side streets opposite Batu Caves on the other side of the highway offer parking. Be mindful of dark streets and do as a friend does, ‘scope out a business that has flood lights and possibly a guard’, for piece of mind if nothing else.
- I had heard the train was the best way in, but one friend remembers an experience of when she was young, where the crowding and pushing on the train was so frightening they didn’t go again. So, this may not be the best experience with children. For me, I would drive again.
Only you know what kind of child you have: whether your child is the one that will stand in wonder; ask a myriad questions; or take fright at the strangeness of it all. But the experience that we, band of uninitiated mums, had was one of wonder. We were encouraged to step in amongst it all and take part, sure, only as onlookers but we were welcome.
For me, I am glad that my first foray to Thaipusam was without my kids, because there is so much to take in. But let me be clear: my children would have been as welcome there as I was made to feel, and I would have no apprehension about taking them when they are ready to experience the people, the smells and the sounds.
Thaipusam, Kuala Lumpur, 2020
This year Thaipusam falls on 8 February:
The chariot procession will begin from Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Jalan Tun HS Lee on Feb 6 at 10 pm before reaching the Batu Caves Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple about 3 pm the next day.
The returning journey, meanwhile, will take place on Feb 9 at 4pm from Batu Caves and the chariot is expected to reach Sri Maha Mariamman temple at 3am on Feb 10.