I always thought that Thaipusam or similar such events would be very interesting to take photos of but the sight of sadomasochistic acts worried me a bit. OK, it worried me a lot. In the three years I attempted to go, three times I backed out, however this year was a different story. As the festival’s date is dependent on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, this year‘s celebration fell on the 25th to the 28th of January, and since my birthday also fell on the same time period, I decided that I should spend it in a unique fashion.
Due to responsibilities back home, I was only able to land in Kuala Lumpur on the second day of the festival. I’ve already missed a good chunk of the activities as the festival started a day before with the 11km procession of devotees escorting images of various Hindu deities from the Sri Mariamman temple in the city center to the Batu Caves. As soon as I checked in at the hotel, I immediately made my way to the caves on the evening of the 26th just to scope up the place. The place was bustling even as late into the evening with devotees and revelers. It didn’t occur to me that Thaipusam would also be such an event with a lot of merry-making going on. There were various carnival rides and games and lots of food. I always thought it to be an event where everyone is praying and giving respects to their gods. Since it wasn’t really my schedule to shoot at that time, and how I always avoid to take photos at night, I waited until the next day to photograph the event with two local photographers who are good friends of mine.
We started early the following day and it was divide-and-conquer for our small team. We didn’t really plan out the day as such, but it was so easy to get lost in the crowd and the activities. We were actually just together for the first 30 minutes and ended up meeting each other a couple of hours later. It is quite funny what happened as I stationed myself on the highway where the devotees arrive from their walk from the city, one friend was at the base leading to the stairs, and another made his way inside the cave. I guess we got the bases covered and we ended up having completely different shots.
Personally, Thaipusam was a very different experience for me, at first I still thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle the sight of all those piercings, but I did manage to get my act together and concentrate to the task at hand. I am after all a travel photojournalist, I should embrace the strange and unfamiliar. It is the very first time I’ve seen people in a trance and the experience still lingers up to this day. It is a very surreal.
The three of us were all beginners documenting this event, and hopefully the following tips will be useful for those who intend on doing the same in the future.
- As mentioned earlier, the event starts at Sri Marriaman temple in the center of Kuala Lumpur, two nights before the full moon.
- Forget driving all the way to the Batu Caves, as parking can be a problem. The best way to get there is by train. Alight at the last station (Batu Caves. 1 RM). During the festival dates the train runs for 24 hours, so getting back to the city shouldn’t be a problem if you intend on shooting after midnight.
- Your main focus are the Kavadi bearers who pierce their bodies with knives, spears, hooks and other sharp objects. Very interesting are those who carry huge canopies adorned with peacock feathers, however it can be quite a challenge to take portraits of them as their load casts a shadow on their faces. Using a fill-in flash could be distracting for the devotees, and probably a little disrespectful for the event.
- Cleansing rituals take place on a river just near the caves across the railway track. Devotees also shower here as part of their cleansing. They also get their heads shave at makeshift stalls just outside the train station.
- 272 steps up the caves is already a challenge, not to mention thousands of devotees making their way to the temple inside the cave. Three times I’ve been to Batu Caves, I have yet to make it past the first 10 steps. So, climb only if you dare. I’ve seen my friend’s photos from the inside and it’s worth it. Crank up you ISO as lighting quality inside is not that good.
- Be mindful of your actions and be respectful at all times. No need for big long lenses for this event as you can get close to the devotees anyway. Take note that this is a religious event, not a safari.