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Thaipusam Festival in Kuala Lumpur

We didn’t plan it, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Thaipusam is a once-a-year Hindu religious festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is one of the most spectacular, unusual, and awe-inspiring religious festivals in the world.

Thaipusam festival kuala lumpur malaysia
Devotees wait at the foot of the iconic Batu Caves stairway, waiting to complete their journey. Many, like this group, are in a trance, pierced, or carrying heavy burdens. This man has dozens of tiny hooks in his back. Others nearby have temporarily pierced cheeks and tongues.

You may think of Malaysia as a Muslim country but in reality, it’s incredibly diverse, pulling influences from all over the globe, including India and China. Kuala Lumpur is one of the best places we’ve found outside India for amazing, authentic, southern Indian food, we go there for that.

But Thaipusam, well, Thaipusam is incredible and we were lucky to have an old friend at Back Home Kuala Lumpur to explain it to us. She is a Hindu and made sure we were where we needed to be. Without her, we wouldn’t have seen nor understood anything at all.

Thaipusam, Kuala Lumpur

Thaipusam at Batu Caves Kuala Lumpur
The steps at Batu Caves. Devotees some carrying huge structures, occasionally attached to the body by spikes, wait at the bottom while others complete their climb.

Thaipusam doesn’t just happen in Kuala Lumpur, you’ll find it in most big cities in Malaysia, anywhere there is a strong Hindu, particularly south Indian (Thamil), population.

We feel that KL has to be the best place to experience Thaipusam in Malaysia, because most of the action happens at Batu Caves, these cave temples in themselves, are absolutely spectacular and fascinating.

Thaipusam Festival Batu Caves
A woman waiting at the bottom of the stairs holding a figure of Lord Murugan. The drummers here seemed to be whipping the participants up into a frenzy of strange trance-like movement.

Thaipusam is on one day, but activities happen over several days. For us, we were seeing festival events from Wednesday through to Sunday night, so allow plenty of time for this.

What is Thaipusam? In a nutshell, Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity and son of Shiva and Parvati, is brought out of his home Sri Mahamariamman temple in Chinatown, KL. He boards his chariot and tours many important temples around the city visiting his family of gods. At the moment he emerges, a pilgrimage starts. Hundreds of followers start the journey, most barefoot, from Chinatown to Batu Caves.

Thaipussam KL devotee Murugam
This man has dozens of tiny milk pots attached to his back withflesh hooks. The lady next to him carries milk on her head and has her cheeks pierced. Some followers seemed to almost be posessed, others were just walking as usual.

Many carry milk or statues of Lord Marugam. Some make the journey as hard as possible by doing it on their knees, carrying huge chariots, and piercing themselves with various spikes. Our lady guide referred to this as “poking”. She wasn’t a huge fan of the poking, neither was my younger son in all honesty, but I love body piercing traditions, (I went under the bamboo tattoo spike in Thailand) so for me, this was a fascinating thing to be there for. A dream come true experience, right up there with Bhutan, Tibet, and Everest Base Camp.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple at Thaipusam

Sri Mahamariamman Temple Kuala Lumpur Gopuram
Sri Mahamariamman Temple Kuala Lumpur. A street in Chinatown and the magnificent painted gopura depicting gods and stories. You can buy flower offerings outside and there is a guy who will look after your shoes. For a small fee of course.

The beautiful South Indian Sri Mahamariamman Temple is one of the stars of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown area. It’s a must-see, even if you can’t be there for Thaipusam. Visitors can enter freely so long as they are respectful and remove shoes and hats. We’ve always been welcomed in temples, everywhere, particularly with the children. A few smiles go a long way.

We’ve visited many temples in the south of India, this one would be small (very small) compared to some there, but it has the most beautiful and well-kept gopura or gopuram, the huge ornately decorated tower above the entrance.

We’ve also seen gopuram worth your time in Saigon and Jaffna Sri Lanka. If you can’t make it to India, do your best to see one elsewhere.

Lord Murugan’s Chariot

lord murugan's charriott thaipusam Kyuala Lumpur
We waited hours in the rain for the tiny figure of Lord Murugan to board his neon-lit chariot outside SriMahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur. Crowds of the faithful waited to start the journey to Batu Caves.

In days gone by the chariot of a Hindu deity would have been wooden and pulled by cattle. You’ll still see that in some parts of the world today and we’ve seen these juggernauts in India, Nepal, and Malaysia. In modern Kuala Lumpur, expect glitz.

lord murugan's charriott thaipusam KL (1)
Priests on the platform, left, place the god in his vehicle

When we first arrived outside the temple, the neon chariott was empty (first photo), the god was still in his usual home, inside the temple being prepared and decorated with flowers. We waited hours in the rain for Lord Murugan to emerge. Priests used a hydraulic platform to raise the figure and install him in his spot.

Once ready there was ecstatic drumming and various musical instruments sounded from the crowd as the procession began.

Thaipusam processiony
I’m always grateful to the women who choose to wear jasmine in their hair. The perfume is incredible.

The children opted not to come with us for this part of the festival, and we’re glad they didn’t. It was a very long wait in a huge crowd and once the crowd started to process it was difficult to stay together. They were safe and happy at the hostel and we told them all about it later.

Batu Caves at Thaipusam

batu caves at thaipusam
We arrived at Batu Caves as early as we could and crowds weren’t too bad at all. Things hotted up as the day progressed. We left before noon. You can see the usual KL air pollution in the background here.

At the base of the Batu Caves steps, quite a complex has built up over the years. The last time we visited, maybe 10 years ago, this whole area was a simple affair on the outskirts of KL bordering a huge freeway. Today it’s much more developed.

Batu Caves has its own train stop, convenient to get there from central KL, or you can catch a bus normally. For Thaipusam the roads were closed to motor vehicles.

Inside Batu caves at Thaipusam
Inside Batu caves there are still more stairs, you can see them back left. This guy, carrying a huge contraption bedecked with peacock feathers seemed happy to have finished and to have his photo taken. He said a cheery hello to us. Street photography and photographing people isn’t something I enjoy, so most of these photos were taken from a long way away or from odd angles. I just haven’t got the front to stick my camera in people’s faces, particularly not at religious events. Some worshipers carried similar devices but attached to the body with metal spikes. These chariots are available to rent for the festival and we even saw children carrying them. I don’t think they’re massively heavy, some may be.

For the festival (and maybe always now, we don’t know) there were carnival-style stalls of sweet treats, snacks, and trickets along with blaring music and other small temples. Batu Caves is free to enter and we climbed to stairs into the caves alongside the pilgrims. Watch out for the monkeys here, they’re crooks.

Video of Thaipusam in KL?

I have a lot of video, all shot properly with my gimbal and microphone. It will take much editing. I’ll let the email subscribers know when it’s ready. It’s days of work, but will be here eventually.

When is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam falls on the day of the first full moon during the Tamil month of Thai in late January or February. Next year it seems to be January 21st, but please cheach for yourself. We were at the festival in the second week of February.

Thaipusam is a public holiday in some states of Peninsular Malaysia. If it falls on a Sunday the Monday after is a public holiday. States listed are Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Perak, Putrajaya & Selangor. Please double-check these dates for yourself this is our source.

YearDate Day
20208th FebruarySaturday
202128th JanuaryThursday
202218th JanuaryTuesday
20234th FebruarySaturday
202425th JanuaryThursday

Staying at Back Home Hostel KL for Thaipusam

decorations for Thaipusam Kuala Lumpur
Decorations on this street, the next street over from our hostel, appeared as Thaipusam began. I don’t know the significance of the banana plant stems, but they were common. There was music and celebration. We eat on this street, in some very good Indian restaurants whenever we’re in KL and the buildings are typical Chinese shop-house style. You’ll see these from the south of Thailand right through Malaysia.

When we first set off on our many years of world travel, Back Home was our first stop. It was just me, mum, and two very small boys age just six and eight. Our lovely friend at Back Home really looked after us, as she had our friends Gabi, Kobi, and kids of the then famous Nomadic Family blog the year before.

I had problem after problem in those first weeks. We landed in Malaysia into an environmental disaster, terrible pollution causing health-damaging smog as burning took place and swamped already-polluted KL. I was stuck and this lady helped me. We’ve stayed at Back Home many times since, always catching up with her and another staff member, now an ultra-endurance athlete and food-tour guide, so Chef and he have a lot to talk about.

Back Home (click to view)is one of our top recommendations for staying in KL it’s perfectly placed for Thaipusam. We can also suggest this space-themed capsule hotel for a novelty stay with kids. My boys adored it and it’s just a few minutes walk away. Capsule hotels are only good for short stays in our experience.

So Back Home is where we stay and a strong recommendation from us. Our Hindu lady guided us to where we needed to be, and made sure we were safe in the huge crowds, at exactly the right time. She took others from the hostel as a small group. We made the journey to Batu Caves alone, that part is easier to negotiate.

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Thaipusam Festival in Kuala Lumpur

Thaipusam, Should You Visit?

Yes, absolutely be in Kuala Lumpur, or anywhere it is celebrated for this ancient mystical event. Dedication like this is rare today and it’s wonderful to see ancient faiths and traditions upheld. Is Thaipusam suitable for children? It depends on the child. My younger son really doesn’t like things like this, but now he’s old enough he can cope with it just fine. When he was younger we wouldn’t have gone. My older son, like me, is fascinated and would have been fine at any age. If you do plan to take kids keep a very tight hold on them in the early stages in Chinatown, the crowd is vast and it would be effortless to get lost. Chef and I became separated at one point and we’re grown-ups. Take a look at Back Home Kuala Lumpur for your stay, also check out the space-themed capsule hotel. (our links are above) If you want more luxury there are numerous very special hotels in KL. Looking for more information on things to do in Kuala Lumpur? We have a full guide along with a post on how to get to Batu Caves.

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Monday 9th of November 2020

Oh I love this. Living in Fiji we have a large Hindu community but I have never seen this celebration. Nor the piercing of skin., So interesting. So love the colours..❤️

Alyson for World Travel Family

Monday 9th of November 2020

Do your Hindus in Fiji come from the south or north?