Garlands of flowers being preserved for the celebrations. Pix by Saifullizan Tamadi
Volunteers busy painting the temple stairway Pix by S.Sugumaran
Many parties are involved to ensure safety and security during Thaipusam. Pix by Zulfadhli Zulkifli
Hindu devotees on their arduous journey Pix by Abdullah Yusof

Preparations are made months in advance before the big Thaipusam procession, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin

ON any other normal day, you'll find cars, busses and motorbikes whizzing on the streets of Tun H.S. Lee. By next Wednesday, however, the road will be closed to all vehicles except one — the opulent, divine silver chariot carrying Lord Murugan.

It's the eve of Thaipusam, and Hindu devotees will gather at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple to begin an arduous but blessed 10-hour journey on foot to the sacred grounds of Batu Caves, some 15 kilometers away.

Thaipusam, which commemorates the day Lord Murugan, the Hindu God of War, triumphed over evil by slaying a demon Soorapadman with a vel (lance), has been celebrated by the Tamil community in Malaysia for over 166 years.

By far one of the most engaging, fascinating festivals in the world, Thaipusam to devotees is a form of penance as well as thanksgiving.

The processions will see throngs of devotees carrying kavadis ranging from smaller ones like milk or pal kavadi to the more elaborate, mammoth-sized Mayil/Shadal kavadis up 272 steps of the Batu Caves.

The celebration, steeped in tradition and filled with colourful sights and astounding energy, is what draws millions of devotees and visitors to the site year after year.

But prior to the festivities, the real work begins and Malaysians of all walks of life become a part of this grand celebration.

HOLY SHRINE

"Thaipusam in Batu Caves is very different from the celebrations in other places," says Kathiresan Kamusamy, a religious member and trustee of the Batu Caves Temple management, as he points to a space where people of different races are sitting down, sipping on drinks, taking in the sight of the majestic 42.7 meter golden coloured statue of Lord Murugan.

"Over the years, because we have more and more devotees and visitors coming here, our chairman, Tan Sri Datuk R.Nadarajah, made changes to the place to accommodate a larger number of people on the grounds."

A few other changes Kathiresan is referring to include the tall, bright lights which line the path leading up to the stairs, as well as the wall framing the compound replacing the fence.

"Considering there are so many people within the area, the management has to ensure a safe environment. Before the walls were built, it would be easy for anyone to trespass and we couldn't control the perimeters of the area."

But on holy festivals like Thaipusam, the temple management joins hands with Polis Diraja Malaysia (PDRM) and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) to ensure the celebrations are void of any danger.

Last year alone, 1.6 million people were expected to throng the grounds of Batu Caves. This year, police are increasing their presence from 1,600 personnel last year to 2,000 personnel at Batu Caves and Kuala Selangor. A coalition of police personnel and NGOs has even formed a body called The Thaipusam Task Force.

"There are months and months of meetings and discussions that the temple committee and management have with the different organisations before the actual event. Everyone in the committee handles different things because there are so many aspects to look into. It's a big committee!" he says with a chuckle.

HELPING HANDS

Anyone who has been to Thaipusam in Batu Caves will tell you the same thing — it is often very packed, sometimes with barely any space to move. And given our weather, the crowd is often under the mercy of the sun. Cases of people fainting or needing any sort of medical attention are inevitable.

"On the eve of Thaipusam and on the day itself, we have teams of people from St John Ambulance and Malaysian Red Cresent ready in different parts of the compound to see to the needs of the crowd," Kathiresan reveals, noting that even doctors from nearby government hospitals make the effort to volunteer their time to help out.

"They are here 24 hours, from the eve of Thaipusam to the actual day."

A flying unit, a joint effort by St John's Ambulance and the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia, is also on stand-by, something Kathiresan feels is one of the most important aspects in keeping devotees and visitors safe.

"There has been countless times people have fainted or required emergency medical services especially when they reach the upper cave during peak hours when it is so congested. We can't bring down the patient immediately in those situations."

The flying unit, he explains, can lift patients from the upper cave in a matter of 15 seconds.

Kathiresan is also quick to point out the invaluable services of volunteers from different NGOs and independent bodies who help with the process of keeping the temple grounds clean.

For years, it has been an issue which has plagued the holy site, despite having bins prepared.

"We plead with those who come every year to be responsible. This is a sacred area and while it is easier to toss bottles or plastic bags everywhere we should try to keep the place clean. But still there's a lot of litter — we can't control everyone."

A HOME FOR EVERYONE

Days before the big festival, huge white tents are set up along temple grounds for traders. Here, everything from statues of Lord Murugan to clothes, food and flowers are sold to devotees and visitors.

"Every Thaipusam we allocate space for around 200 stalls because we want to support the traders too," Kathiresan shares, noting that all vendors have to apply for a license before staring their business there during Thaipusam.

While the business owners pay a fee to rent the space, everything else including water, electricity and the building of tents are borne by the Batu Caves management.

Some may be quick to criticise the renting of space to vendors, but as Kathiresan explains, the funds are used to help run the sprawling land which includes maintenance work on the electrical cables, pipes, upgrading the sacred flight of stairs, and the safety in the 400 million year old limestone cave where the holy shrine lies. Much of the funds, he shares, come from devotees themselves.

Photographers often catch spectacular shots of Thaipusam — the devotees in their yellow robes, children with shaved, saffron-covered heads, mighty women and men carrying kavadis with hooks piercing through their skin and tongues.

While these are phenomenal snapshots of this holy celebration, we often forget the people behind the scenes that make Thaipusam the biggest and most popular Hindu religious festival outside of India.

Their roles in this are a mark of how good things happen when people come together for a cause more important than their colour or creed.

Kerry-Ann Augustin can be reached via [email protected]