Despite living in Kuala Lumpur for over 14 years, I have never been to the Thaipusam celebration at Batu Caves until last Friday, 17th January. This year, I had no excuse to miss out on on one of Malaysia’s top tourist draws.
I had a reason to be there – I’ve taken up photography as a serious hobby – and the means to get there – KTM Komuter has extended its line to Batu Caves and runs round the clock during the festival.
So there I was along with over 1.5 million devotees, tourists and photographers, as we immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds of Thaipusam, a Hindu festival in honour of Lord Murugan.
I managed to wake up at 4am and caught the 5.14 train in the nick of time – I ran as a young man at the station who had just returned from Batu Caves urged me to ‘lari, lari sampai terbang macam burung’ (run, run till you fly like a bird).
By 5.30 I was at the Batu Caves station and the place was already a hive of activity. I followed the flow of the crowd and soon came across a massive line of devotees waiting to go up the 272 steps up the hill to the caves.
There were two sections – one for the paal kuddam (milk pots) and another for the kavadi. I wasn’t sure where curious tourists and photographers on a mission should go. Are we even allowed to join the devotees up the steps? After surveying the crowd, I decided to go with the paal kuddam line because I didn’t want to get in the way of the kavadi bearers.
Due to the sheer number of people, the crowd moved at a very slow pace. I only reached the caves past 9am. While it was good to experience the procession up the hill as a first-timer, if I return next year, I would come later for the daylight and stick to the foothill. I’m not good at taking moving subjects in the dark, so I ended up with a lot of blurry photos.
I also found out later about a nearby river where the devotees would cleanse themselves and prep up before heading for the hill. I missed the morning action as I only got there after lunch.
Looking at some pictures by other photographers, I can see the swarm of photographers around the devotees. It would be a great challenge to take photos amidst all that competition.
While Thaipusam is a test of faith for the Hindus, it’s a test of skills for photographers. You need a trained eye to spot photo opportunities and be quick to capture them, while being respectful in not getting in the way of the devotees and finding your space amongst all the other photographers.
Want to join in the celebration next year? Thaipusam in 2015 will fall on Tuesday, 3rd February. You can visit Batu Caves one or two days earlier if you want to avoid the massive crowd. The best way to get there is by train via KTM Komuter. Service runs 24 hours during the festival period, every 15 to 30 minutes. If you have a Touch n Go card, use it to avoid the long queues for tickets. If buying a manual ticket, get the return ticket so you don’t have to line up again. If you’re driving, you may need to park far away. Traffic is really bad on the festival day. Taking the taxi could set you back a hefty sum if you get caught in the slow traffic crawl.
1. Wear something comfortable and light. Be respectful – no shorts and skimpy tops – this is after all a religious celebration and you are visiting a temple.
2. If carrying a bag, make it small, preferably a backpack so it’s easier to move around, especially if you’re taking photos.
3. Wear comfortable footwear. If climbing up, wear easy to remove footwear like sports sandals (e.g. Teva) or hybrids. You will need to remove any footwear in the temple grounds. Bring a plastic bag along to carry your footwear if you’re worried about losing it in the sea of shoes and slippers. A hook or cable to attach it to your backpack will free your hands for photography.
4. If visiting in the daytime, bring a hat and put on sunscreen. Bring enough water. There are also stalls offering free drinks at the foothill.
5. Empty your bladder before going up the steps. It’s a long way to the top and there are no toilets up there.
6. Carry some snacks or power bars if you’re going up, in case you get hungry or low on energy.