Life in TransitA Digital Nomad in Asia

272 Steps of Penance

Tired and resting mid-climb.

“Vel Vel, Vel Vel”

There was a reverence in the eyes of many, as they fixated their gaze towards the cave entrance. Some carrying pots of coconut milk, while others bearing the agony of heavy Kavadis, chanted the name of Lord Muruga’s spear, Vel, to rally themselves as they made their 272 step ascent into the Batu Caves.

Though normally a climb not exceeding 5 minutes, the journey today was agonizingly long as devotees had to contend with the swarm of people on the staircase.

This was Thaipusam, a festival celebrating the day Lord Murugan, a Tamil Hindu deity, received his spear, Vel, from his mother, the goddess Paravathi. The Vel is the embodiment of her power and subsequently used to conquer the evil demon Soorapadman.

For the devotees at the Batu Caves, the 272 step pilgrimage was a way of paying it forward in he hopes of receiving help from Lord Murugan. The coconut milk, Vel shaped spears through the cheeks and heavy Kavadis on their shoulders are a penance they make to seek that favour.

We chant [‘Vel Muruga, Vel, Vel’] in the belief that he will follow us and help us climb up the 272 steps

Sundari Naidu

One 15-year-old devotee, Dashratha Naidu, struggled up the stairs for two hours with a Kavadi upon his shoulders. His petition was to do better in school. Grimacing with pain as his relatives helped to move the load off his shoulders, his youth granted him celebrity status as many tourists lined up to take photos with him.

“He’s the youngest one,” said someone from his entourage. Indeed while there were other much younger devotees making their way up the stairs he was the youngest I saw who was carrying a full fledged Kavadi. The other younger pilgrims were carrying much smaller offerings to their god.

“It’s heavy,” one of Naidu’s entourage replied without divulging the precise weight when a tourist asked how much the Kavadi weighed.

“[The] peacock feather is the Lord Muruga’s vehicle. That is why we make the Kavadi with peacock feathers. He sits on the peacock and travels everywhere,” explained Sundari, Dashratha’s mother, describing the design of the Kavadi.

That heavy Kavadi took its toll on Dashratha during his climb as he had to stop a few times during his ascent. Fortunately, his entourage was there to provide a chair, water and some crowd control.

“Scary,” said Dashratha when asked what he felt when he made the climb. The crowds had made him pensive during the climb.

To purify his body for the climb, Dashratha had to maintain a vegan diet for 48 days. No meat, eggs or “anything to do with blood” his mother said. They believe this allows him to channel help from Lord Muruga for the climb.

“We chant [‘Vel Muruga, Vel, Vel’] in the belief that he will follow us and help us climb up the 272 steps,” said Sundari.

She added that once you take a vow to carry the Kavadi, you are committed to do it for three consecutive years.

“It was a bit scary because it was his first experience. For our family, it was also our first experience. For next year, we won’t have the scary feeling with us. We’ll be more prepared and more excited,” said Sundari.

There were other interesting people who made the climb.

One devotee who looked like a priest was delivering blessings to other hopeful devotees that sought his audience. They anointed his head with coconut milk for his efforts.

In one instance, he seemed to vanquish an evil from an older lady. She screeched like a monkey as he waved his hand towards the floor.

“Woosh,” he said a few times as she screeched.

An assistant then abruptly gathered some ash nearby and placed it on her forehead.

The “priest” too had made the climb though with fruits hanging on his back, attached by hooks pierced through his flesh.

More colourful devotees appeared after we had descended from the caves. They danced in circles, accompanied by a whole band. The musicians dressed in colourful costumes, loudly thumping drums and other instruments, provided an uplifting experience and rallied the devotee and his supporters for the climb.

Overall it was a great celebration of the Tamil and Hindu culture and am grateful for the opportunity to see the event unfold first hand.
The journey into the caves »

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