The three great mysteries: air to a bird, water to a fish, mankind to himself.

[ Hindu Proverb ]

Malaysia’s Batu Caves are one of the largest, most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. Although the majority of Malaysia’s population is Muslim, around 7% are Hindu, and this shrine draws millions of both tourists and worshipers from near and far every year.

Located just north of Kuala Lumpur and nestled in the side of a large limestone cliff, the Batu Caves are the focal point of the world famous Hindu festival, Thaipusam, a Tamil Hindu festival held around the end of January / beginning of February every year that commemorates when Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love, aided Murugan, the son of Shiva and the Hindu god of war, in the defeat of a demon, Soorapadman. The festival is marked by some seemingly extreme — and attention-grabbing — acts of devotion. Worshipers will offer a kavadi, or the representation of a physical burden, as an offering to implore Murugan to spare them or their loved one the great trial or physical burden they are facing. Forty-eight hours before the commencement of Thaipusam, the devotees will began a ritual cleansing of fasting and prayer, followed by the shaving of their head and a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves on the day of the event. For some, the kavadi, or offering, is more subdued, and may involve carrying a pot on their head; for others, it involves self-mutilation where devotees literally skewer themselves, with small spears portruding through and out of their bodies. It sounds disgusting, but such extreme devotion fascinates me.

In Kuala Lumpur, the Thaipusam pilgrimage begins in the heart of the city at the Sri Mahamariamman temple and continues over 8 miles to the Batu Caves just outside of the city, where the devotees will climb the 272 steps past the 42.7 meter tall gold statue of Murugan to the entrance of the cave shrine.

Unfortunately, my visit missed Thaipusam by just a few days. I would have loved to have been able to come earlier to experience Thaipusam and to talk to the pilgrims and worshipers about why they came and what they believe. Although I have been to many different centers of religious worship and religious shrines throughout the world, I had never specifically visited a Hindu place of worship; likewise, I have not had the opportunity to speak with many practicing Hindus about what they believe and why. So even though I was missing the excitement of Thaipusam, I was nonetheless looking forward to this new experience.

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I traveled to the Batu Caves using the metro, or the KTM Kommuter, which offers a train directly to the Batu Caves from KL Sentral Station. After winding my way through a maze of vendor stalls selling everything ranging from fresh spices to Bollywood DVDs to ceremonial flowers and incense sticks, I arrived at the celebrated entrance to the caves where I was greeted by monkeys, pigeons, tourists from all over, the towering Lord Murugan, and the 272 steps leading to the 100-foot tall Cathedral opening at the top of the cave. My senses were completely overwhelmed by the strong mix of smells — curry spices, incense, and monkey poop — and I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle the steep climb past Murugan and into the cavernous abyss.

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As I began the ascent, any question that might have remained as to where the strong stench plaguing the air was coming from was erased; the stairs were splattered with the pungent poo of the hundreds of monkeys that swarmed the railings and the trees around the caves. I had been warned in advance to expect the monkeys, and I knew they frequently jumped on tourists not careful to store food or water bottles out of view, but I hadn’t expected their accompanying smell.

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As I sidestepped my way around the ubiquitous monkey deposits, carefully avoiding getting too close to any of the monkeys either, I noticed the diversity among the visitors to the temple. People of all races, all religions. While many people were younger, fitter, and had DSLR cameras slung around their shoulders and were clearly tourists, others were older and the climb was difficult for them; still others were clad in beautiful, colorful saris. I wondered what their motivation was for making the climb. Were they here as a tourist or a pilgrim? How far had they come to be here and what did they hope to achieve? What does their religion mean to them?

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The 100-foot high opening to the cave gives way to a massive open chamber known as the Temple Cave, full of various statues and shrines.

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The first cavern opens up, giving way to yet another.

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Scenes depicting various Hindu gods throughout the temple caves. On the left-hand side of this one is the god Ganesh, known for his elephant-like head. He is known as the god of good fortune, to whom success and prosperity are attributed, so he is quite common and revered among the various sects of Hinduism and across socioeconomic statuses.

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As I made my way throughout the temple complex, I noticed quite a few bloody chickens laying with their heads cut off right in the middle of the main walkway. Some of them must have been fresh sacrifices, as their bodies were still flailing.

This was quite a shock to me at first. I would have expected to have seen something like this a few days before perhaps at the Thaipusam festival, but I wasn’t sure if these sacrifices were somehow associated with that or if they were isolated. And, were they common in Hinduism? What were they meant to achieve or atone for? And, I thought Hindus generally held animals in high regard due to the belief of reincarnation? Did this not apply to chickens?

Upon further research I found that animal sacrifice is actually very controversial in Hinduism and it is generally not practiced in most of India. It is more common in Bali, a Hindu island in the majority Muslim nation of Indonesia, but most Hindus seem to oppose it based on the Hindu practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence (ok, so not my reincarnation theory …). The prevailing premise behind why one would conduct animal sacrifice is essentially the idea of keeping the demons appeased, as they have large appetites. So I guess it’s a way of keeping the demons from bringing harm to you, rather than trying to ward them off all together.

This was not what I had expected to find out. In my own religion, Christianity, and in Judaism, animal sacrifice was a way of atoning, or covering over, human sin and inadequacy in comparison to the holiness of God. In fact, that is why we believe in Christianity that God sent Jesus Christ to lay down his life as the final sacrifice to atone for human sin. But, if what I am understanding from this more isolated Hindu practice is accurate, it doesn’t seem to be a way to receive forgiveness, but rather a way to receive protection. This is quite the contrast from my own worldview and difficult for me to grasp.

Regardless of what my personal beliefs are, I do feel it is important to seek to understand what others believe throughout the world and to get to know more about how they live as a result. I’m not sure the practices of Hindus would have impacted me much had I not had the opportunity to observe them first hand. My only regret was that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to anyone at the Batu Caves more about what they believe and why they worship the way they do.

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The Temple Cave is also impressive from a geographical perspective. It is said to be around 400 million years old.

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Around the corner from the Temple Cave is the Ramayana Cave, honoring the god Rama. Hindu tradition teaches that Rama was the seventh incarnation, or manifestation, of the god Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s three principle deities. Rama was the king of Ayodhya and the main character in the Hindu scriptures known as the Ramayana.

The cave was not open when I was visiting, so I didn’t have a chance to explore.

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Outside the Batu Caves are open squares and public markets. I enjoyed walking around and observing how people interacted with one another.

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My visit to the Batu Caves left me with much to ponder about Hinduism and about the diversity of religious beliefs throughout the world. Because I am more familiar with monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — I felt as though I did not have a good frame of reference through which to seek to understand the practices I was observing before me. This visit left me with much to ponder and an increased motivation to explore more about the beliefs and practices of Hindus. 

Questions I have for Hindus include: 
– Is Hindu devotion motivated out of a love for a god(s)? Or rather a fear?
– How much of the devotion is directed toward the gods and how much toward appeasing demons?
– The concept of reincarnation and karma … what is the ultimate goal? And when does life ever really end? Is reincarnation as something better similar to a “salvation” concept? Can you ever be “good enough” so that you don’t need to be reincarnated again?
– How does the belief in karma affect how Hindus treat others? Is this motivated out of fear of retribution or genuine love or concern for others?
– What do the candles and incense signify at the shrines?
– When praying at the shrines, to whom are you praying and what do you say?

Hopefully on my next visit to a Hindu nation or area, I will have the opportunity to dialogue with others about these questions. In the meantime, I’ll keep researching on my own in an effort to better understand the world and its people; regardless of whether or not I share their beliefs, I still believe we have a responsibility to seek to understand one another. 

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To learn more about Hinduism, check out this helpful resource from the BBC.