A Visit To Batu Caves
What Is Batu Caves?
Batu Caves is a series of caves on a limestone hill located north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. What make the caves famous is that they house several Hindu shrines and is the focal point for the celebration of Thaipusam, a popular Hindu festival among the Tamil Hindus.
During the Thaipusam celebrations, over a million devotees come together at Batu Caves and climb up the flight of steps that lead to the cave temple. This event also attracts thousands of tourists.
At other times of the year, Batu Caves is a popular tourist attraction attracting hundreds of thousands of both local and foreign tourists every year.
In January 2006, a 43 m (140 ft) high golden statue of Lord Murugan, a popular Hindu deity was erected at the entrance of Batu Caves.
The gigantic and very impressive looking statue is the tallest Lord Murugan statue in the world and it took 3 years to construct. It is about the height of the Statue of Liberty minus the pedestal.
I made my own journey up the 272 steps to see for myself the beauty of the Cathedral Cave, the biggest of the caves in the limestone hill with a high ceiling that is several stories high and houses several Hindu shrines.
The Journey Begins
We arrived at the foot of the majestic limestone hills at about 9:30am.
It is important to start the climb early before it gets too hot and humid because in a tropical country like Malaysia, the temperature can easily soar to about 40 degrees Celcius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) as the sun gets higher.
Being a typical Malaysian, I don't have as much love for the sun as the typical Westerner. Maybe it is because we get plenty of it all year round.
Even at about 9:30am, there is already quite a sizable crowd at the temple grounds. While there are many who are making their way up, I can also see there are some who are already making their way down.
The statue of Lord Murugan stands tall and gleaming in the morning sunlight. Right next to is the stairs that lead to the caves above.
The sight of the 272 steps that I have to climb looked really daunting. I started to think that maybe coming here wasn't such a great idea after all.
I had my entire family with me for this trip. My wife, my two kids aged 11 and 6 plus my parents. I thought it would be a good learning experience for the 2 young ones. Besides, the climb is a welcome change from the usual video games, iPad and sitting in front of the TV.
My 6 year old son had already complained when I told him about the 272 steps the day before but surprisingly the first thing that he said when he saw the stairs was it was not as high as he thought and he wanted to make the climb after all.
Furthermore, my 72 year old mother will be making the climb as well although my father said he will sit it out.
I had to put on a brave face no matter what and hope that my daily climbs up to my office and forsaking the elevator will come in handy.
And Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" starts playing in my head....
My two kids shot up the stairs like two rockets. My son was anxious to count the steps to verify if indeed there were 272 steps in total. My wife went after them while I took my own sweet time as I had to....errr......accompany my mother and to....errr.....take photos.
To be honest, we had it easy. If you look carefully at the photo above, you will notice that some people are barefooted. Batu Caves is considered a sacred place and therefore many Hindu devotees will go barefooted.
Furthermore, during the Thaipusam celebration, most of the devotees will be bearing a religious artifact known as a "kavadi" which in some cases can be quite heavy. I will cover more on Thaipusam in a separate section below.
You can say that compared to most others, I am having a stroll in the park.....albeit a park with a 272-step stairs.
Looking back in hindsight, the climb was actually not as torturous as I feared. Every 17 steps or so there is a landing that is about 4 feet wide that you can pause for a short rest, admire the scenery and take a few photos of the surroundings.
The landings are also probably there to stop you from rolling all the way down in the unlikely event that you trip and fall down.
While you are making your ascend, you also have to watch out for the monkeys.
Visitors are advised not to bring any food with them as the monkeys will try to snatch it away from you. Even loose non-food items such as hats, glasses, sun shades and cameras are fair game to the monkeys' thieving ways.
More photos on the way upClick thumbnail to view full-size
View At The Top
After about 10 minutes I finally made it to the top although it seemed much longer than that.
I was quite proud of myself for making it relatively unscathed and no shortness of breath until I noticed a rooster that somehow made it to the top as well.
The first sight that greeted me when I reached the top of the stairs were two shops on either side of the cave entrance. They were selling all kinds of souvenirs and religious paraphernalia, not just Hindu ones.
Take some time to admire the view in the other direction as well. On a clear day, you can see a pretty nice view of the Kuala Lumpur city skyline. It would also give you some time to catch your breath.
However, I was not prepared for the truly breathtaking sight that greeted me next as I walked deeper into the cave.
This is the Cathedral Cave or Temple Cave. It is the biggest cave in this limestone hill and the ceiling looks like it is about 100 meters (300 feet) high but I couldn't really tell for sure. Of interest are the huge stalactites hanging down from the ceiling and you can sometimes spot bats roosting in the nooks in the ceiling.
There are several small openings in the ceiling that let in the sun light. The sun light streaming through these openings looks really heavenly.
The cave is lighted so visitors are able to see some of the details on the cave walls and ceiling.
There are a few of shrines housed in the Cathedral Cave. The biggest one is right under the high ceiling while the another big one is a little further deeper in the cave and under a big opening to the sky.
There were monkeys in the caves as well and it was quite entertaining to watch them clamber up and down the shear cave walls. Some of the visitors were enticing the monkeys to climb down by offering food.
After about half an hour, we decided it was time for us to make our way back down. The kids were getting tired and the last thing that I wanted was to carry my son all the way down the 272 steps.
More photos of Batu CavesClick thumbnail to view full-size
No article on Batu Caves is complete without a mention of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is the celebration of Lord Murugan being given a "vel spear" to be used to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam. It is celebrated during the full moon between the mid of January until the mid of February.
Up to a million people or more gather at Batu Caves every year to celebrate the occasion. Thousands of Hindu devotees take a vow to bear a kavadi to be offered to Murugan to avert or to tide over a calamity.
A kavadi can be as simple as milk kavadi which consist of a a small wooden pole surmounted by an arch to a complicated structure weighing tens of kilograms with metal hooks that pierce through the back, chest and arms of the devotee.
It is also common for the devotee to have a miniature "vel spear" pierce through both cheeks or the tongue of the devotee.
Devotees purify themselves and enter into a trance-like state before having the kavadi attached to their bodies or pierced with the "vel spear". The truly amazing thing is that almost no blood is shed during the piercing or removal process.
Tailing worshipers bang on drums to create a musical tempo and dance around the kavadi carriers.
The devotees then climb the 272 steps to the temples in the cave where their kavadi are removed and they are brought out of their trance state.
This event is a major tourist attraction in Malaysia and is one of the biggest Thaipusam celebrations outside of India.