On the fringe of Thaipuam in Batu Caves

Couldn't sleep on Thursday morning. Went to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur at about 5 a.m. Left Rupert and Paddy in the hotel. The limestone is said to be 400 million, yes 400 million, years old. Astounding scenes. Massive 40 metre high gold floodlit statue of Lord Muruga, Ganesh's younger brother and son of Shiva who was conceived as the sparks and flames from the mouths of Shiva and his wife joined together. Towering cliffs behind with steps cut into the rock. An impossibly long continuous trail of patient dark-skinned Tamils ascending.

Bleeding men carry huge kavadis, or portable shrines, over their heads, the struts of which pierced their bodies.......... some recently shaved bald heads powdered white. One Goliath of a man with hugely heavy chains over his shoulders is being held back on every step by someone pulling the chains, others have hooks in their bloody backs. Thousands of women carry silver pots of milk on their heads to be poured over an icon of their God......... 276 steps up into the temple in the cave. Slow tiring progress for everyone. It's still dark but warm and already sultry. Elderly people are determined but struggling to get to the top. Glaring floodlights light the way. Balloons, including ones of Mickey Mouse - bit odd that! Peacock feathers are on sale. The usual stalls, gaudily lit, selling religious icons, sweeties and packets of rice snacks.

People everywhere, families mainly or groups of devotees have been walking for many miles and many hours. Exhausted shuffling onwards. Plastic shoes and flip flops litter the steps. Everyone earnestly quiet apart from an incessant chanting from pilgrims of "Vel, Vel" - the 'invincible lance'
held by Lord Muruga. Several deafening sets of drums and bugles; chanting with amplifiers and speakers. Incense.

At last, into the temple with a sea of people and the uncomplaining crowds multiply - the noise heightens at the top of the steps as drums beat out rhythmically - "VEL, VEL" - there is little space to move, but still we press on, the roof of the cave 100 metres above us. You think Indiana Jones but that trivialises an important religious ceremony. Piles of flowers and garlands are strewn over the temple floor before Gods. So many people - some men half dressed most in yellow. A picture of total devotion on everyone's faces.

276 steps down as crowd numbers swell and the cave continues to swallow them all up. More and more kavadis - hundreds now which tower over the crowd. Bigger, louder drums, the drummers fighting to make the most noise. The chanting swells again. Dawn breaks as still more pilgrims flood in. A fun fair with Ferris Wheel and roundabout seems out of place. 130 photographs and my phone battery is flat.

I left to come back to the hotel and have a full-on 3 hour breakfast meeting with Paddy and a client. The reality of business already diminishes an indescribable breath-taking spectacle.

P Deacon

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