Stepping Up to Spiritual Heights during Thaipusam
by Simon Marcus Gower February 14, 2012
Hindus and tourists visit the Batu Caves, where a shrine has been dedicated to the deity Lord Murugan. About 100 meters high, the Temple Cave was formed out of limestone hills in Malaysia. The 272 steps leading up to the cave are guarded by a golden statue of Lord Murugan. (JG Photos/ Simon Marcus Gower )
"It's 272 steps to the top, you know," is the warning often heard when approaching the Batu Caves, a Hindu holy site. The words are spoken as if it might be an exhausting venture to climb the site's concrete steps. The climb, however, does not have to be tiring, as there are landings every 10 to 15 steps to allow for rest breaks. Along the way, visitors can enjoy the spectacular view spreading out further below as they climb ever higher.
Malaysia's Batu Caves, an impressive limestone formation just north of Kuala Lumpur, are a natural wonder and have been a holy pilgrimage destination for Hindus for over a century. The cave complex is set in a limestone hillside that rises over 100 meters and is accessible by the daunting stone steps.
When making the steep ascent to the caves, rest breaks are advised not only to catch one's breath, but because humans aren't the only visitors to this holy site. At times, aggressive macaque monkeys scurry up the steps or sit looking intently at the human visitors. The monkeys see the humans as a source of food, and soon enough somebody will pull out some biscuits or bread, which is quickly eaten (or even more quickly snatched) by monkeys happy to receive handouts.
The monkeys can be aggressive, but if a "don't bother them" policy is adopted, they do not disturb people ascending the steps. This is just as well, since many people are visiting the caves not just to see the sights, but also as part of a pilgrimage to pay homage to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan.
Pilgrimage and homage are appropriate, but coming to see the sights is worthwhile too, as the caves are a dramatic sight to see, formed in large limestone hills that rise sharply out of the surrounding landscape.
The hills are said to be about 400 million years old and records of human activity in the region date back 200 years. Chinese immigrants mined in area in the 19th century and were followed by colonial explorers and naturalists investigating the site.
But it was an Indian trader by the name of K. Thamboosamy Pillai who transformed the caves into a place of pilgrimage for Hindus. Undoubtedly impressed by the high-ceilinged caves, he dedicated it as a shrine to Lord Murugan about 120 years ago.
By 1920 there were wooden steps leading up to the remarkable cave, which is sometimes called the Temple Cave or the Cathedral Cave, thanks to its great height — it rises up some 100 meters from its floor to ceiling. Those wooden steps have since been replaced by the 272 concrete steps that pilgrims and tourists climb today.
Standing guard by the side of the steps is a giant statue of Lord Murugan. This is a relatively recent addition that undoubtedly adds to the attraction of the location, but it is a giant and rather fearful-looking figure, though perhaps this is what was intended. Lord Murugan is, after all, considered to be a god of war and victory.
The statue is huge, standing at over 40 meters in height, and has a rather overpowering presence. It is gold in color, but perhaps due to its sheer enormity is not made out of gold. Instead, it is made of concrete and steel, with a thick coating of gold paint. It is certainly an impressive statue, but it barely competes with the natural splendor of the caves.
The main cave is awe-inspiring with its high, vaulted ceiling with an opening that allows almost mystical rays of sunlight to pour into the huge space. Here, too, are the shrines that are the real destinations for pilgrims, where attendants chant out their devotion and strike bells to their gods.
Deities that take both human and animal form are represented in colorful statues dotted around the vast cave.
Some of these are placed within specially constructed shrines, but others are just placed within the cave spaces amongst the rock formations. This adds quite a spooky feel to the place, as statues can be found in dark corners with artificial lighting casting eerie shadows from the figures.
But it is at the shrines where it becomes evident that this is a place of worship and a holy place. Attendants arrange garlands of flowers around the shrines and offer incantations. Hindus approach the shrines in reverence and seek attention and blessings from the attendants.
The shrines seem to be peaceful places where people come to pay their respects and contemplate their lives.
Occasionally, small clouds of dark smoke are carried by a light breeze around the shrines as devotees make burning offerings and kneel before the flames to waft the smoke over their heads to gain some grace and favor. The cumulative effect of all this devotion adds a layer of mysticism.
The caves are a natural wonder. Their great height, the rocky limestone and the climb to reach them all add up to a place where nature is spectacular and intriguing. Hindus see it as a special place and as a place of pilgrimage, but all visitors, regardless of their faith, cannot help but be struck by the awe-inspiring sights.
Courtesy: The Jakarta Globe of February 14, 2012