Althought the majority of Malaysia is Muslim, the country’s population includes more than two million ethnic Indians, most of whom are Tamil Hindus.
Every year, these Hindu communities celebrate Thaipusam. A public holiday, Thaipusam is a thanksgiving to Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan) for answered prayers, and is also a day of penance. This important Hindu festival is held in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar (usually the end of January).
In celebration of Thaipusam, over a million Hindus converge on temples nationwide – the most famous being at the Batu Caves (an important religious site for Tamil Hindus on Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts), where hundreds-of-thousands gather.
Participants prepare themselves for the occasion by cleansing their bodies through fasting and abstinence, and usually observe a vegetarian diet for a certain period of time prior to the day of the festival.
But the feature of Thaipusam that makes it so fascinating for photographers is the way that the celebrants display their penance.
Many devotees pierce their skin, tongues or cheeks with long skewers in a form of penance, or bear elaborately decorated frames called ‘kavadi’ – typically attached to their body using sharp metal spikes dug into the skin.
If you plan on taking photos of Thaipusam, be prepared for a very crowded, hectic and sometimes even claustrophobic experience. However, the shots you get will make it well worth your while.
Although Thaipusam is also celebrated in India and Singapore and other countries with large Hindu Tamil communities, in Malaysia it’s marked with a particular zest that makes it special.