Food Feature: Got to have faith

Hindus rise to the religious occasion

Lasting for three days and falling between mid-January and mid-February, Thaipusam is a Hindu festival of thanksgiving and penance that has a personal meaning for each participant.
While Thaipusam is celebrated in each country with sizable populations of Hindus, its celebration is at its most dramatic at the enormous Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Last January, we experienced it firsthand.
It began as we boarded a worshipper-filled bus for the ride to the festival site. The size of the crowd — tens upon thousands — was overwhelming. Chanting, singing and the din of the masses mixed in a pleasant cacophony of sound, while the smell of incense and flowers hung in the air.
Brilliant yellows, purples, reds and greens radiated from the crowd, contrasting wonderfully with the rich, brown tone of the people. While we were tentative initially, clinging to the periphery, the crowd took no notice of us, making us feel comfortable and welcome.
Drawing closer, our fascination grew as we saw the devout making their pilgrimage toward 272 very steep steps and, ultimately, into the Batu Caves. The caves are home to Hindu shrines and provide a worthy, albeit difficult, goal for the masses.
The pilgrims all walked barefoot. Women and children carried pails of milk — an offering to the Hindu gods — upon their heads, ignoring the fatigue of their upraised arms. Some men carried enormous kavadis — shrines built upon steel frames, worn upon the shoulders, and weighing upwards of 100 pounds — elaborately decorated with flowers and peacock feathers.
Other men, in a spectacular demonstration of religious conviction, made the pilgrimage with their tongues and flesh skewered with spears and hooks, from which, often, fruit was suspended. They appeared to be in a trance, seemingly feeling no pain and shedding no blood. The most masochistic were men who had large fish hooks pierced through their backs. To the hooks were attached sturdy ropes, which were pulled taut by a friend following behind, providing a steady, painful resistance. All in the name of thanks or penance to the Hindu deities.
We were awed by the intensity of faith so dramatically displayed. We couldn't help but feel there may be nothing we believe in with the same passion. But such is the wonder of travel and the wonder of the world's religions.

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