The annual Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur is one of the largest in the world, attracting Hindus from near and afar to make the annual pilgrimage to this sacred place to pray and offer thanks to Lord Murugan and accompanying deities. It’s an amazingly colourful and energetic display of religious belief and devotion where devotees show their heart felt thanks, appreciation and devotion to the gods by scaling a steep flight of 272 steps in the last leg of their journey in order to reach the main temple in the cave.
Dressed in yellow (or ocre), devotees carry a ‘kavadi’ on their way to the temple, which signifies carrying a ‘burden’ of which to implore Lord Murugan for divine assistance or as a means of thanking him for assistance fulfilled. The kavadi can be as simple as a pot containing fresh milk covered with a piece of yellow cloth tied down with a string of jasmine flowers (paal kavadi) and held on the head. It could also be something more elaborate in construction, a large and heavy wooden/metal structure (mayil kavadi) with milk pots attached to it and weighing to the tune of 50kg, elaborately decorated and strapped/harnessed to the devotee’s body.
Having a structure 1.5-2.0 m in height and diameter, 50kg in weight, strapped to your body as you scale a steep flight of 272 steps is no mean task. Devotees carrying the mayil kavadi therefore tend to stop at landings in between the stairs, assisted by his/her entourage for a breather, some water and have their legs massaged to alleviate soreness.
With a flood of devotees converging at the cave, long queue is the order of the day, devotees patiently queue, inching their way toward the temple. Upon reaching the temple, they offer a prayer to Lord Murugan, hand their pot of milk to the temple’s priests, who then pours the milk onto Lord Murugan while chanting mantras as a blessing and cleansing of sins. Devotees who are not carrying a kavadi crowd around the vicinity of the temple’s entrance too to pray to Lord Murugan. After completing their prayers, devotees rest within the cave’s grounds to regain their strength before resuming their journey back down, this time with an easier task of descending the steep flight of 272 steps, body and soul invigorated from their encounter with the Lord …
Shooting conditions were understandably challenging. When I started at 5 in the morning light level is rather low at the time of the day. In addition, the ongoing religious proceedings and cramped flow of human traffic made it difficult to move about to get the best composition. You sweat a lot too in the the hot and humid conditions, which tires you faster and make your body sticky and uncomfortable. Challenging, yes, but also very satisfying to photograph, not to mention to experience and enjoy the spirit of the celebration and atmosphere, provided one is not agoraphobia, altophobia or claustrophobia. In the low light shooting condition and at times unpredictable/rapid action of the devotees my biggest concern was getting sufficient shutter speed to shoot handheld (~1/60 s) and freezing action, while maintaining sufficient DOF (~f2.8) at moderate ISO (~ISO 1000 to keep noise level down) and of course, acquiring focus; the Fuji X-E2 focus peaking and AF+MF focusing features helped to a certain extent.
All photos: Fujifilm X-E2 with XF 23mm and XF 55-200mm