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Only 15 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur lies the most popular Hindu sanctuary outside of India: the Batu caves. The series of caves is decorated with a large number of colourful, painted images of Hindu gods. The largest cave can be reached after climbing 272 steps – an enormous steep stairway not only used by pilgrims and tourists, but also by monkeys. Every year, the frenzied Thaipusam festival takes place at these caves.
For a long time, the existence of these caves was not widely known. It was only at the end of the 19th century that an American biologist stumbled across the caves by accident. A small altar was built in the enormous cave, which would later be renamed the Temple Cave. Even though many more religious statues now fill the cave, the most impressive remains the 100-metre--high cave itself. In a smaller cave at a lower level you'll find many more colourful gods depicting stories from Hindu mythology.
The chalk rock formations in which the caves are found are approximately 400 million years old. The caves are named after the Batu River, which flows through the Gombak district north of Kuala Lumpur. Until the official discovery of the caves, they were mostly inhabited by bats. In the 19th century Chinese migrants frequently entered the caves to harvest guano (bat faeces) to fertilise their fields. Traces of Malaysia’s original inhabitants have also been discovered in the caves. Only at the beginning of the last century did the caves become popular with the general public.
Indians were especially drawn to these caves. Large numbers of Indians had moved to Malaysia during British colonisation. They brought their Hindu religion with them and found in the caves the perfect spot to worship Murugan, the god of war and victory. Since then, the Batu caves have been mostly dedicated to this deity.
Once a year, as hundreds of thousands of Hindus gather at the Batu caves to celebrate the Thaipusam, the site is literally crawling with pilgrims. In addition to the devotees, this exceptionally colourful occasion also draws many spectators. Most unique are the kavadis: ‘burdens’ that are carried up the stairs by devout visitors. As proof of their devotion, people attach the kavadis to their body with hooks that pierce the skin, cheeks and tongue. In exchange for this painful dedication, devotees hope for the grace of God Murugan. A 43-metre-high golden statue of the god towers over the throngs.