A Guide To The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia (Batu Caves)
Updated: 27/05/21 | May 27th, 2021
The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia is not for the faint-hearted.
There’s blood, personal sacrifice and there are primal screams. There’s also vibrant colours, profound religious significance, once-in-a-lifetime sights and more culture than you could soak up, even if you were to travel the country for years.
Much like other similar holy festivals around the world, this is undoubtedly one of the most intense cultural experiences you can have in Malaysia. The 400 million years old Batu Caves, once a shelter to the indigenous Temuan people has now become the heartbeat of this powerful Hindu carnival for the local Tamil community and deeply curious travellers.
Still interested? Strong stomach? Find out what the annual Thaipusam Festival, held in Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves is all about and if it’s the right fit for you and your travel plans.
What is The Thaipusam Festival?
Celebrated around the world by Tamil-speaking communities, the Thaipusam Festival honours the Hindu legend Lord Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvati. It marks the day Lord Murugan defeated three demons, after which he became known as the conqueror of evil. On the eve of the three-day festival, you can watch as the chariot procession, bearing the statue of Lord Murugan, is carried from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves.
The festival was first brought to Malaysia in the 19th century when Indian migrants arrived to work on Malaysian rubber estates and in government offices. Not only celebrated in Malaysia, but you’ll also find the Thaipusam Festival being revered in Tamil speaking countries across the world including Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, Suriname, Mauritius and Fiji.
When is the Thaipusam Festival?
The exact dates of the Thaipusam Festival vary from year to year. Thaipusam itself falls on the day of the first full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, which usually falls at the end of January or the start of February. However, the festival normally lasts around three days. Here are some dates to keep in mind for the upcoming years for Thaipusam:
- Tuesday 18th of January 2022
- Saturday 4th February 2023
- Thursday 25th January 2024
- Tuesday 11th February 2025
- Sunday 1st February 2026
Significance of “Kavadi” at The Thaipusam Festival
During the Thaipusam Festival, loyal devotees put themselves under a significant physical burden as an offering to their main man of the moment, Lord Murugan. They do this in return for answered prayers, forgiveness of sins and for future favours. These intense physical duties are known in Tamil as a ‘Kavadi’.
Kavadis are usually physical structures made out of steel rods and wood and decorated elaborately with bright colours, peacock feathers and pictures of other deities. However, kavadis can range from something as simple as carrying a pot of fresh cow’s milk (‘paal’) or rose water on top of your head, to a more serious act, such as cheek piercings that prevent a devotee from talking – the ultimate sacrifice, and a sign of total dedication.
Most commonly, you’ll see small hooks attached to weights pierced through a devotee’s skin. In extreme situations, these hooks will be attached to a chariot, which will be pulled along by a believer.
Many devotees undergo intense preparation to prepare their mind, body and soul in order to be resolute enough to carry a kavadi. Some are put into a trance-like state, which allegedly stops them from feeling pain. Wounds are later treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.
Why You Should Celebrate Thaipusam Festival in Batu Caves
First celebrated at the Batu Caves in 1888, the Thaipusam Festival has been taking place on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for more than 130 years and has become one of the most significant Thaipusam Festivals in Malaysia.
The Batu Caves are also dedicated to Lord Murugan (hence the ginormous gold-plated statue of him, towering over tourists as they enter the steps), firmly cementing this holy place as the most popular Hindu Temple in Malaysia, and also one of the most revered Hindu shrines outside of India.
You’ll find smaller celebrations in Penang, Sungai Petani and Ipoh, but nothing like the energy in the capital, where over a million Tamil devotees and thousands of tourists descend on the Batu Caves, making it incredibly unique.
How To Get To Batu Caves From Kuala Lumpur For The Thaipusam Festival
Sitting just outside of the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur, getting to the Batu Caves is pretty easy… if it weren’t for the million other people trying to do the same during the Thaipusam festival.
First, you’ll need to get to Kuala Lumpur, a solid international hub with direct flights from major cities around the world including London, Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
When you arrive in the city, you could be forgiven for avoiding road transport as roads are normally at standstill traffic, so resting up in a nearby hotel after your flight could be wise. However, if you get up early, a bus or taxi is a perfectly good option. (Personally, I think it’s best to just suck it up and suffer some more until you get to your preferred base).
I recommend using the train to get to the Batu Caves. You’ll avoid the chaos on the roads, and they put on more trains to support all of the traffic for the festival. Note for ladies; around ten years ago, Malaysia launched pink women-only coaches on their trains to help prevent sexual harassment and to give Muslim women the option of travelling separately from men. So, keep a lookout for these and make sure you’re getting on the right carriage.
- Direct KTM commuter route that goes from KL Sentral to Batu Caves Station.
- How much does it cost? Between two and three Malaysian Ringgit each way.
- How long is the journey? 25-minute journey with regular trains leaving KL Sentral.
If you’re looking for a hassle-free experience, you can opt for a tour. These tend to sell out quickly around the Thiaparum Festival so make sure you book in advance. Most tours will organise all transport and food for you, which means if you’re staying centrally you’ll be picked up and taken there. Tours, of course, are not the cheapest option, but they can be more comfortable than tackling the crowds yourself and you have the added bonus of learning more from an informative guide.
Taking the bus to Batu Caves means you’ll get to see all of the action as you travel, but you’re more likely to get stuck there for a few hours as you weave your way through the traffic.
- Buses 11 and 11d both go direct from Puduraya in Chinatown.
- How much does it cost? 2.50MYR for a one-way ticket.
- How long is the journey? 45 minutes.
Wherever you find yourself in Kuala Lumpur, you’ll always be able to flag down a taxi. Most local taxis run on a meter, but it shouldn’t cost more than 20 Malaysian Ringgit to get there
- How much does it cost? Around 20 MYR but this can be cheaper on the meter.
- How long is the journey? 20 to 25 minutes.
As well as local taxis, Kuala Lumpur is tech-savvy enough with one famous taxi-hailing app to choose from… and it’s not Uber, thanks to the Malaysian-owned company ‘Grab’ merging and calling the shots within Southeast Asia, they are now top dogs in the country and the whole region. You can select a ride via your phone from anywhere in the city.
- How much does it cost? 20 to 30 MYR one-way
- How long is the journey? 20 to 25 minutes depending on traffic.
The Best Time of Day To Visit The Batu Caves For The Thaipusam Festival
Visiting the Batu Caves during the Thaipusam Festival is a memorable experience no matter when you visit. However, depending on what you want to see and how you want to experience the festival will dictate when you go.
If you want to get stuck into the festival and experience it at its most vibrant, you should visit on the first day when the procession has arrived at the foot of the Batu Cave steps. This is when you’ll see the most vibrant colours and the most astonishing sacrifices.
The Thaipusam Festival can be extremely overwhelming for some. It’s hot and sticky in Kuala Lumpur, the crowds can be suffocating and the self-sacrificing you’ll see isn’t for the easily squeamish. If you’d like a little glimpse into the festival, there’s still a lot going on in the early hours of the morning and well into the evening. At these times there will be a lot fewer people, and it will be a lot cooler.
11 Things To Expect at The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia
Chances are, you’ll see, taste and smell a lot of things you’ve never seen before during the Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia. It’s a complete sensory overload. Here are a few things you can expect so you can prepare yourself and make the most out of the festival.
Sacrifice and physical burden are a way that the Tamil folk pay penance to Lord Murugan, so prepare yourself for some faint-worthy sights. Some devotees pierce their skin with Vel skewers, others hang weight from hooks attached to their bodies, while others walk miles with heavyweights on their shoulders.
Before the festival even begins, Thaipusam enthusiasts cleanse their bodies through fasting, abstinence and by observing a vegetarian diet. Many also shave their heads completely as a sign of complete devotion and an act of repentance as well as bathing in the nearby Batu River to be spiritually cleansed.
Perhaps more shocking than the piercings and self-inflicted pain are the trances you’ll see people in. Seemingly possessed, these trance-like states become active before an individual pierces their body and are said to protect the devotee from feeling any pain. If you’re walking along and somebody suddenly cries out or begins to dance erratically, don’t be alarmed! Trances come in the form of erratic dances, chanting and eye-rolling.
The night before the official day of Thaipusam, devotees gather at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. They then spend the next eight hours completing a 15-kilometre barefoot walk to the Batu Caves, arriving the next morning. Once there, they will climb the 272 steps to the Batu Caves to show their respects to Lord Murugan.
During the first and third day of the festival, as Lord Murugan’s chariot moves through the streets of the city, you’ll see thousands of coconuts smashed along the roadside. Supposedly, this symbolises breaking your ego and allowing the purity inside to take hold.
6. Hordes of Tourists
As well as hundreds of thousands of devotees, you’ll also be part of 10,000 tourists that witness the event every year. Prepare yourself for crowds, take lots of water and avoid any stampedes!
Despite the main festivities taking place at the Batu Caves, the whole of Kuala Lumpur is alive during this three-day event. Around the city you’ll find smaller processions, chanting and sacrifices being made around the clock.
With the smashing of coconuts, the thousands of human bodies and the hundred of monkeys hanging around, the streets get pretty dirty. Be prepared to walk through monkey shit and pigeon poo. Time to ditch those beloved flip-flops for some closed-toe shoes, or play “which shit is it” roulette? Up to you, I’m not judging either way.
9. Depth of Devotion
As one of the most important festivals for Hindus of Tamil descent, participants take the festival extremely seriously, something that can be seen in the sacrifices devotees make. It’s often a time of reflection, forgiveness and respect, so it’s important to be respectful throughout the festival.
10. Monkey Mafia
If you’ve travelled around South East Asia, you will probably have experienced the gangs of macaques found at various temples, and Batu Caves is no different. Hundreds of monkeys call the Batu Caves home, and they are quite mischievous! If you’re not careful, they’ll steal your food, cameras and drinks, so keep things safe and out of cheeky monkey eyesight.
11. A Decent Hike
To get to the caves, you have to walk up 272 steps, sometimes in the blistering midday heat. You’ll need an average level of fitness for this, lots of water and you’ll need to be prepared to be carried by the pace of the crowd.
5 Important Tips For The Thaipusam Festival, Kuala Lumpur
A deeply important religious festival like this demands a good level of respect and cultural must-knows. Here are a few we think are the most important.
Dress respectfully. As is the case with many religious festivals, most people will be in traditional wear that covers most of their body. Tourists are expected to dress respectfully, with covered shoulders and knees.
Take off shoes when you visit the temples. Devotees make the 15km trek barefoot, but you don’t have to. Once you get to the caves, there are certain spaces that you can’t wear shoes in, and most choose to take their shoes off at the bottom of the stairs.
Take in the Hindu God Lord Murugan statue. With the bragging rights of being the 3rd tallest Hindu deity statue in the world, take some moments to appreciate the majestic, gold-plated Lord Murugan. A true icon of Hinduism for the local and travelling Tamil community.
Try the food. Local vendors line the streets with vegetarian snacks during the festival, and we’d highly recommend giving as much of it a try as possible. You’ll see Pongal, a mixture of rice and lentils seasoned with delicious spices, or Kolache Poha, flattened rice cooked with coconut, tamarind, green chillies and cumin, as well as Panakam, a sweet drink made of jaggery, lime juice, flavoured with cardamom, ginger and peppercorns.
Take non-evasive photos. It’s okay to look, smile, and follow your innate curiosity, but remember that these people are in the midst of moral redemption, not at a freak show carnival. If you’d like to take a photo, keep your distance, and take a photo from afar.
Conclusion: Is The Thaipusam Festival in Batu Caves Worth The Trip?
I battle with sensory overload when answering a simple question while making a cup of tea. So you can only imagine the struggle I had at the Thaipusam Festival, with the array of colours, noise, smells and sounds overwhelming my body at every given second.
I’ve travelled all over the world since then, experiencing my fair share of intense ceremonies like this, so as a relative newbie to the world of travel, this was tough to take in and be fully conscious at the same time.
Working for 4 years in the care industry in the UK put me in good stead for the aggressive parts of Thaipusam, as you can’t work in that industry and be squeamish, it’s a serious conflict of interest.
With that being said, being up close and personal to the facial and body piercings and the exorcist-like trances certainly stunned me…at first. But like most things, the shock factor wears off when you see higher volumes of what initially shocked you and it becomes the “norm.”
I watched one guy salivate, make growling cat-like noises, seemingly have a seizure and then scream as the thick blades were removed from his face. Seconds later he came over to me and said in the most cordial, delightful manner; “Thank you for coming to our festival, Sir. It’s a great pleasure to have you here,” while shaking my hand with a genuine smile, as the blood poured from his wounds on his face.
The spiritual/religious aspect fascinated me, as in the depth of devotion to their deity being the main reason why a lot of the attendees would put themselves through that. Of course, not all Tamil people celebrating this holy day self-mutilated, and there was clearly a spectrum to what an individual would be prepared to do in order to fully express the love that they carried for their faith.
Full disclosure here though; I still had a bit of maturing to do as a younger man at this festival and there was still a very real part of me that labelled it “crazy” in my head, not allowing too much nuance to combat this one-dimensional way of thinking.
“Vel vel… sakthi vel” was a constant chant that echoed within the Batu Caves from people burning incense sticks, singing along to this phrase in unison. It turns out the chant roughly translates in English as “powerful weapon,” presumably a hat tip to the famous fable about Lord Muruguan, which is influential amongst the Tamil and Hindu community and the main reason for the Thaipusam festival itself.
Thaipusam certainly is a “go hard, or go home” kind of event and I’m beyond happy to say that I experienced it for myself. I loved this celebration, it was the gateway drug to many other holy festivals like it around the world. It was my first, and it certainly won’t be my last!