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by sue n 

Posted: 14 February 2005
Word Count: 932
Summary: A Hindu festival in Kuala Lumpar

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"You must do it for journalism," said Jit.
Behind me were hundreds of thousands of Hindus crammed into the festival area, in front, a solid mass of devotees climbing the two hundred and seventy two steps to the temple inside the Batu Caves -- and Jit wanted me to join them. I gulped.

I was in Malaysia, and this was Thaipusam - described by the Lonely Planet as 'one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals (now banned in India), in which devotees honour Lord Subramaniam with acts of amazing masochism'.

Earlier that day, I'd hopped on a bus that disgorged its load of excited pilgrims and lone English tourist at Batu, where a tent city was littered with picnicking families and prone bodies sleeping, reminding me of the outer ring of the pop festivals of my youth.
The path to the cave area was lined with stalls of garish Hindu icons, garlands and presents for the gods of limes and jugs of milk. Barbers, standing in mounds of black hair, worked furiously to shave the heads of men, whose eyes glowed with a silent fervour as they patiently queued. The distant cacophony of drums and cymbals added to a growing sense of excitement and expectancy in the pilgrims and me, and our pace quickened in unison.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight and sound inside the festival area. Like a field of oil-seed rape, the crowd gave off a yellow glow from saffron robes, golden flowers and lemon-coloured cradles containing babies granted in answer to prayers. Devotees in the central aisle, with the limes and jugs of milk attached to their bodies by hooks, tongues and cheeks pierced by spikes and skewers, swayed and prayed as the procession inched forward.

But these painful acts of faith were dwarfed by the spectacular Vel Kavadis. Huge metal cages, with bright tent-like covers decorated with neon holy pictures, flowers sprays and a multitude of peacock feathers, rested on the carriers' shoulders, attached to their skin of their torsos by spokes and a multitude of hooks. The cries of 'Vel, Vel' from the crowd and the drum beats and chants of their band of supporters drove them on in a trance-like state.
It was a pulsating, gruesome, compelling, riot of colour and noise.

I was perfectly content to watch, taking in the sights and sounds until, miraculously in such a crowd, I bumped into Jit, a Malaysian student I'd met a few days earlier.
"You must climb to the temple." he said. "Come with me."
"It's too hot" I protested. "I'm quite happy here"
But Jit was clever and when he urged me to do it for journalism, he knew I had no choice but to rise to the challenge and join the sweaty, heaving mass queuing at the bottom of the steps.

After half an hour I was surprised that I still existed, surely I'd melted away, and we hadn't even reached the first step. Suddenly it appeared at my feet and the nightmare assent began. Packed in among the faithful, I picked my way slowly, step by step, through the carpet of discarded plastic water bottles, lost shoes and occasional body as yet another person fainted. The first-aid was very well-organised and these unfortunates were whisked away efficiently.
I soon lost Jit in the throng, and, half way up, found myself being diverted into the middle lane by an official. This was where the kevalis were ascending and though it wasn't so crowded and I could breath again, I felt guilty to be in their midst as they plodded upward with their heavy loads, driven on by the drums, a few near exhaustion.

My legs jelly, I reached the top and entered the huge cave containing the temple. In contrast to the scene outside, the atmosphere in the cave was quiet and calm, the air refreshingly cool. The temple itself was covered in an eerie glow created from the shafts of light blazing down from the hole in the roof of the cave that merged with the fog of incense burning in braziers. The devotees made their offerings and sat praying. The cave was so big that the huge crowd was able to disperse, granting breathing space and room to rest. All around the walls were niches with altars and statues of Hindu gods. Each niche had its own band of irreverent monkeys careering around at high speed or sitting on the heads of the statues.
The peace was occasionally broken by the odd pilgrim for whom it was all too much, and one woman, screaming in a manic trance, had to be restrained by her band of followers.

When it was time to head back down, a bottleneck was created as pilgrims, spectators, devotees, helpers carrying the now redundant kevalis, and a hot, sweaty tourist tried to get through the narrow gap at the top of the steps. I teetered on the edge of panic and the steps, as people pushed from behind there was nowhere to go. By sheer will-power I refused to let my feet be lifted from the ground, and, by the judicious use of elbows, managed to get safely through the gap. Once on the steps themselves, the crush eased and soon I was safely at the bottom.

Exhausted and emotionally drained, I gulped down a huge coke with ice, for once ignoring the health risk.
Jit was lost forever, and needing to get away from people, I caught a bus back to KL, numb from one of the most extraordinary mornings of my life.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 08:17 on 15 February 2005  Report this post
I thought this read perfectly and give a great sense of actually being there amongst the crowds. Just the slightest sense of danger, of being swept off your feet or crushed by the people, gave an edgy feel to the whole piece and the details were particuarly well observed.It is exactly the right length. Have you found a publisher?

A typo point, or maybe you were not vigilant with the spellchecker, but for 'symbols' you should have 'cymbals'.

I lived in Singapore for a couple of years, and visited KL, so remember the impossible climate. It was frequently the hottest, most humid city on the the planet, according to newspaper listings. Thaipusam was banned in Singapore, too.

sue n at 22:57 on 15 February 2005  Report this post
Thanks for the comments Cornelia
Cymbals corrected.
Sue n

Account Closed at 15:11 on 16 February 2005  Report this post
Hi Sue,
Great descriptions - I felt like i was there. I think, I've been to the caves but not at festival time. I have been to other hindu festivals, though and the sheer number of people is overwhelming. Maybe you could have added more physical descriptions of the people in the queue with you. (just an idea)



All that hair gets sold to the wig-making industry!

scottwil at 02:49 on 21 February 2005  Report this post
Excellent, Sue. A really sucessful piece of description perfectly conveying the claustraphobia and strangeness of the experience. I live in Singapore now and it can certainly give KL a run for its money when it comes to heat and humidity.


sue n at 18:03 on 21 February 2005  Report this post
Thanks Elspeth and Sion
So thats where all the hair goes!
I could agree about describing people but I find description the hardest part of writing - trying to find a non-cliche, non-naff way to paint a picture.

I have been struggling with the Taj Mahal for weeks but can't find any original/interesting words that haven't all been used a thousand times before to describe this ...., .... and .... building.

Singapore is the sweatiest place on earth.
Sue n

Bianca at 16:34 on 23 February 2005  Report this post
Hi Sue

A lovely piece.

I visited the caves in the early 80's whilst living in Hong Kong. I remember those steps! I was not lucky enough to witness the festival. You brought it to life for me though.

You have captured the heaving masses, the vibrant colours of the garments, the market stalls, music and I could almost hear the babble of voices.

It sounds as if the emotional drain was well worth it, judging by your comments.


Richard Brown at 21:59 on 24 February 2005  Report this post

I think this is wonderful! (I also think that you are exceedingly brave!)Being a pernickety person it's rare for me to read something without thinking of things I might change were it mine but this neatly and potently defeated my critical sense. A very well crafted and atmospheric piece in my opinion.

I await the Taj piece with acute interest! On my one and only visit, many years ago, I was cynically determined to resist the place just because the hype is all-pervasive and because I was telling myself 'it can't be that good' but as I stepped through the gates at opening time early one morning and took the building in - I burst into tears! Very unmanly! (Mind you - I always want to cry when the Welsh sing their anthem at the Millenium Stadium and I'm not even Welsh!)

Go on - give us the Taj - I'm sure you are constitutionally incapable of feeding us cliches.


sue n at 20:36 on 25 February 2005  Report this post
Thanks Shirley and Richard
Encouraging words.

It's no good Richard, the Taj continues to defeat me.
I even paid 2 to view some 3-D image on screen to get inspiration and remind myself of the detail.But it all comes out hackneyed.
I think I'm trying too hard, perhaps I should just scrap it and start again, and try to go back to those all important initial impressions.
Sue n

Richard Brown at 21:43 on 25 February 2005  Report this post

I'm sure you're right. Just where the power of the place comes from I have no idea but a piece of prose which captures even some of the strength would be a pearl. I'm sure that bricks and mortar descriptions would achieve nothing. I think that the going back to first impressions would be excellent but then, also, a 'letting go?' Your writing is wonderfully disciplined and I really enjoy your style but maybe the Taj demands a bit of splashing out.

Mind you, I'm not offering to have a go myself!

Best of luck if you do persist.


sue n at 23:12 on 25 February 2005  Report this post
I would genuinely like to know what 'wonderfully disciplined' really means.
I have a spark of interest in my never-ending book but they want me to draw more on emotion to engage the reader with me as the central character.

I find this quite difficult but feel that I am increasingly willing/able to do it, but your phrase and last comment suggests that maybe I am still 'tight-arsed'in my writing?
(Bad but expressive phrase)
Any comments appreciated
Sue n

Richard Brown at 10:00 on 26 February 2005  Report this post
No, that's going far too far! I think of your writing as beautifully crafted which is quite a different thing. In fact, I think that there's a healthy amount of yourself in the Thaipusam piece.

As we've often noted before in this group, getting the balance right with travel writing is very difficult. For my taste the writer should be a bit character rather than the star but this seems not to be the modern trend. And if you can do a deal with a publisher on 'personal account'lines I would definitely go fo it. You're far too good a writer not to be able to adapt.

And it occurs to me that the Taj piece might be the very one to push the limits a bit further It's a very long time since I was in Agra but I vividly recall the hassles my partner and I had because we chose to walk to the Taj and the extreme feelings this and some other experiences evoked but I can also remember some sublime moments especially, as I said before, the one of escaping from the harrassment and stepping in to the magical ambience of the Taj. I'm sure you could paint a thrilling picture and I'm sure you would be a worthy star!


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