Photo: One of the many facets of Kuala Lumpur.

It’s a bit like waiting for a bus: you hang round for ages for a major festival, and then five come along in quick succession. First up is Deepavali, then Christmas, (Western) New Year, Chinese New Year, and last but not least, Thaipusam—and while the latter may not be well known outside southern India, for the Tamil community of Malaysia and Singapore, it is hugely important.

The three-day festival, which next kicks off on January 31, 2018, commemorates the victory of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam) over a powerful demon, Surapadman—a feat made possible by the gift of a sacred vel (lance or spear). Thaipusam celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and truth over falsehood.

The largest and most spectacular celebration of Thaipusam outside India takes place in and around Kuala Lumpur. In the early hours of the morning, a procession sets off from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Chinatown, KL’s most important Hindu place of worship. At its head is a golden chariot, carrying an idol of Lord Murugan.

Tens of thousands of devotees do the whole 15 kilometre walk, from Sri Maha Mariaman to Batu Caves, a large Hindu temple complex, to the north of KL. For those taking part in the procession, it is either an act of thanksgiving for a past or future favour, or alternatively, an act of penance for a misdeed. Many of the devotees have a kavadi (offering) attached to their body by metal hooks or spikes, while others carry a pot of milk on their head.

The final part of the procession is a climb up the 272 steps to the main grotto at Batu Caves. Once at the temple, the kavadis are offered to Lord Murugan, while priests chant prayers. Those devotees with metal implements attached to their body have them removed, and their wounds are treated.

If you are going to experience one festival in Malaysia, then Thaipusam is hard to beat. But with up to one million people thronging Batu Caves over the course of the celebrations, it’s not recommended for anyone with a fear of crowds. Smaller, though no less colourful processions, take place in Georgetown (Penang), Ipoh (Perak), and the west coast island of Pulau Pangkor; culminating respectively at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, Kallumalai Arul Migu Subramaniar Temple, and Sri Pathirakaliaman Temple.

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