If my trip was inspired by the famous Eat, Pray, Love book (which it wasn’t really), then Penang would certainly have covered off the eat and pray portions. As mentioned in my previous post, Penang is known for its incredible Indian and Chinese street foods, some of which are unique to the island.
On my last day there I also was lucky enough to experience Thaipusam, an annual festival celebrated by Tamil Hindus. Because of the shared history in Malaysia a small minority of Chinese, Sikh and others also join in the celebrations. The name comes from Thai, the name of the month in the Tamil calendar, and Pusam, a star which is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave the God of War Murugan a “vel” (spear) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman. The festival is huge in KL with over 1 million participants, and I have no idea how many attend in Penang but it seemed massive.
A chariot precession leaves from central George Town early in the morning and makes its way towards the Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple. It’s a long hot journey that takes all day and all night, culminating with 513 steps to reach the temple. The participants in the parade are all male, however men, women and children of all ages are also included as spectators. Participants dress up in a variety of colourful costumes and have varying forms of “kavadi” (burdens). The simplest form is a colourful decorated canopy that is carried on the shoulders. Others have piercings through their cheeks and big metal hooks pierced through their backs that are attached to decorated chariots.
I joined up with the beginning of the route in the late afternoon after lunch in an attempt to avoid the sweltering heat. I’m glad I did, it was still extremely hot right up until sunset and didn’t cool down much after that. On Google maps it said the entire route was an hour walk. I knew I’d found the beginning when I saw about a dozen young men dancing in costume. It was a pretty intimate affair but very interesting, I kept moving down the road to see what lied ahead. At this point I had absolutely no idea what the scale of the festival was. As I got further there would be more small collections of people participating and watching. I also started noticing shops and stands handing out free juices. After about 20 minutes of walking the festival had hit a critical mass, traffic was blocked off and there were suddenly hundreds of people, and then thousands. The thumping Indian music had gotten much louder and had a heavy bass. It reminded me of being at Divercite in Montreal or at a big dance club, I even heard Gangham Style mixed into one of the songs! The street was now lined with sponsored stalls along each side, most handing out juice drinks and some dishing out free food. There was colour and light everywhere, an incredible sight to see as the sun set behind the distant hills. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it in my life.
Some of the young men in bright costumes were incredibly good dancers. I did end up seeing some pretty extreme piercings as well, some had rods through their cheeks and others had the big hooks in their backs that were attached to a chariot behind them. Many also had metal ornaments and milk jugs attached to their bodies or balanced on their heads. It was so hot and I was already sweaty and exhausted from the journey, so I can’t imagine how those men were enduring. They did have a pit team fanning and hydrating them whenever they stopped so I suppose that would help.
Further on in the festival there were stalls selling snacky Indian street food. I tried a number of things even though I had no idea what they were. I think my favourites were the round little balls that I thought were going to be savoury but turned out to be a sweet dessert. They reminded me a lot of Tim Hortons timbits back home but way more dense and filling (for any non-Canadians reading this timbits are basically donut holes).
After probably three hours of walking through the massive crowds I was at the base of the giant hill where the temple was. I was tired but figured I couldn’t go all that way and not walk up to it. I was glad I did, the temple at the top was beautiful and provided a birds eye view of devotees walking up to the temple from the sparkling city below.
It was an incredible experience and I felt really fortunate to be in Penang at the right time to see it. Okay “eat” and “pray” are done, does that mean I find love in Thailand? 😉