Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Batu Caves

Hinduism is psychadelic, man. Less a religion than an agglomeration of assorted beliefs and traditions, Hinduism defies logic. It is at once monotheistic and polytheistic. It embraces practices that are among the world's most ornate, and the most austere. Its iconography includes a bewildering array of gods and the wildest creatures ever to be created by the human mind, but in the same breath the Rig Veda states that all is one. And its sway over an entire people is such that, when you are surrounded by 700 million people who believe in Shiva, believe me: Shiva exists.
It's been 16 years since I last saw India, a country in which I spent roughly a year and a half over the course of several trips in the early 1990s. But the experience of that vast and ancient land came back to me in its full technicolor glory on a trip to Malaysia's Batu Caves. Located only 13 km. outside of Kuala Lumpur, in an 400 million year-old limestone hill by the side of a busy road, the Batu Caves are a center of Shaivite worship for Malaysian Hindus, and one of the world's most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, attracting 3,000-5,000 visitors every day. 
A flight of 272 steps leads up to the caves. At the base stands an enormous (42.7 meters) golden statue of Lord Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam, the son of Shiva. Lord Muruga is the patron deity of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu; the fact that the largest Hindu shrine in Malaysia is dedicated to a Tamil deity demonstrates the importance of Tamil culture to this country. The stairs to the temple are populated by wild monkeys, who take handouts from tourists and pilgrims, but remind you with menacing glares that they are neither friendly nor tame.
Like so many Hindu temples in India, the Batu Caves manage to simultaneously convey a sense of devotion along with a carnival atmosphere. At the top of the steps is a gift shop, and tourists can have their pictures taken with a bored albino python. Further in – the cave complex contains three large chambers – the mood gets more devotional. Statues displaying scenes from the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures are arranged in niches throughout the complex. Pilgrims, many of their heads shorn and caked with sandalwood paste, file into the two main temples in the second and third chambers of the cave. Dhoti-clad priests offer flowers and sweets to the temple gods while devotees light butter lamps. Between the mesmerizing chants of the priests and the thick clouds of incense, one is easily transported to another world.
Once a year, the Batu Caves become the focal point for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, where devotees make offerings to Lord Muruga on his birthday. Associated with this festival is the bearing of kavadi, or burdens, through which the devotee implores Lord Muruga for help. Some devotees go to masochistic lengths by skewering their cheeks and tongues with lances, hanging or even pulling heavy objects with hooks attached to their bodies. It is said that the kavadi bearers enter a trance state and feel no pain, and the hooks and lances leave no scars when they are removed. We unfortunately missed this important festival, when the Batu Caves are said to attract one million visitors, by two weeks. In the catalogue of the world's religious practices, Thaipusam has to be one of the strangest.
We completed our trip to the Batu Caves by stopping into a sweets shop at the foot of the caves. There, we shared a couple of Indian sweets and a large helping of ais kacang, a popular dessert in Malaysia and Singapore. Made of shaved ice, red beans, sweet syrup and a variety of gelatinized fruits, this southeast Asian sweet reminded me that I was not actually in India, but that this taste of India was just another facet of the multicultural medley that is Malaysia.

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