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Tourism Malaysia

Thaipusam: A Walk Among Gods

Selva, a devotee, in a trance as Lord Kali, the fierce Hindu goddess

Indians the world over have a gesture that, as far as I know, is unique to them. It is a sideways lift of the chin, usually performed in unison with a play of the eyes – a long, benign blink – and an almost imperceptible sway of the shoulders. Depending on context, it can be a yes, it can be a no, it can signal deference, it can signal a decision made. But regardless of context, the receiver always understands the message.

It is with this very gesture that Selva snapped out of his trance as Lord Kali, the fierce Hindu goddess. We are on the banks of the Batu River, which flows within eyesight of the famous Batu Caves, and it is the day before Thaipusam. During Thaipusam, Hindu devotees will undertake a pilgrimage from the Batu River to Batu Caves, while performing acts of penance such as carrying a physical burden (called a “Kavadi”), or piercing themselves with hooks or skewers. Devotees often enter into trances to perform these feats of endurance, calling upon one of Hinduism’s 33 million deities to possess them through intricate rituals passed down through the generations.

Ash is sprinkled over Selva’s head, as he enters into a trance

Initiating a trance

I am watching Selva perform one such ritual. First he cleanses himself. Traditionally, devotees take a dip in the river, but technology has now allowed for a public shower system to be installed on the riverbank. Then, an elaborate ceremony, conducted with the help of his entourage, follows, involving incense, fruits, Kumkum powder and holy ash.

Try as I may, I cannot keep up with or understand the maze of rites. Small braziers are lit, and some of the items held over the smoke. Milk is poured into two silver jars and secured to Selva’s Kavadi. Next to me, one of the women breaks into trance with a shriek. Another woman soon follows suit. Amidst all this, Selva bows and touches the feet of his mother, the ultimate gesture of respect in Hinduism.

One of the members of Selva’s entourage seems to perform the role of a priest, giving directions to the group. It is he who calls a trance on Selva. Selva stands before him, palms pressed together, as he chants quietly. Ash is sprinkled over Selva’s head, and his body begins to tense into a bow. I watch his eyes turn wild. With a scream, Selva drops to his knees, tongue out-stuck. He is Kali.

Next, the piercing. Selva’s penance this year involves piercing his tongue. As Selva – or Lord Kali – stands, arms akimbo, staring at the crowd that has formed around him, an exhausting amount of rites is performed over the long silver skewer that will be used. Meanwhile, he asks for a lime and chews on it. When the skewer is ready, he offers his tongue, which the priest dabs with Kumkum powder and ash, before slowly, laboriously, passing the skewer through it. He doesn’t flinch. With the skewer secured, the priest holds Selva’s head in his hands, chants some prayers, and suddenly, as if roused from deep thought, Selva’s body relaxes. Without even looking up, he lifts his chin sideways, and everyone in the group understands that the trance is over.

Now for the small matter of carrying the Kavadi all the way to the temple in Batu Caves. Like many other devotees, Selva will perform his pilgrimage today – a day earlier – to avoid the massive crowds on the day proper. “It’s OK to do it the evening before,” explains Selva when I spoke to him earlier. “It is still within the auspicious period of time, when the Pusam star is at its highest point and it emanates positive energy.”

Selva begins his journey towards the cave with the burden of his Kavadi on his shoulders

Positive energy

Energy would be the word to describe Batu Caves that afternoon. The caves are a familiar sight in Kuala Lumpur, its bone-white limestone cliffs topped with verdant green jungle often intruding into the city’s concrete skyline. When it does, it usually provides visual relief, an oasis of calm amid urban bustle. But today, Batu Caves is buzzing with energy. Inside the park area around the caves, stalls line every walkway, selling religious trinkets, clothes, cold drinks, vegetarian food, traditional Indian sweets and even furniture. The air is thick with the scent of spices and cooking oil, and vibrates with music blared from loudspeakers that have long since burst their diaphragms. Indians love their music driving, pulsating, full-blooded. People are everywhere, jostling with you, calling out to you, smiling at your camera, and when you thank them, lifting their chin sideways in return. Everyone and everything is conspiring to beat back the energy-sapping Malaysian afternoon heat.

As you walk closer to the caves, the tarpaulin tents of stalls part to reveal the famous 150 foot-tall golden statue of Lord Murugan. And next to it, the 272 red-and-white steps that takes visitors from ground level up to the mouth of the main cave complex, within which resides the most visited Hindu temple in the country. Closer to the foot of the caves, various organisations and associations have erected tents to serve free vegetarian food to the anticipated 1.5 million visitors. At the back of the tents, huge vats are cooking batch after batch of rice, which when piled into mounds on a table covered in banana leaves, resembles a miniature of the Swiss Alps.

The scene at Batu Caves during the day

In this festive atmosphere, Selva carries his Kavadi towards the cave. Kavadis range in size and form, sometimes reaching up to seven feet above the bearer’s shoulders. But Selva has chosen a modest version resembling a carrying pole, decorated with Hindu motifs, and bearing a jar of milk at each end. He has walked some two kilometres to arrive at the foot of the 272-step stairs that leads to the caves. All through the journey, through the music and the smell of food and the heat and the crowds, Selva maintained stoic focus. Many devotees would enter into a trance for the entire duration of the procession, but Selva is aware and clear-minded throughout. “That’s the way I prefer it,” he would explain later. “I want to feel the burden on my shoulders.”

Joining the crowd on their way to the temple

Resonating with the masses

An hour and a half after the start of his pilgrimage, at the top of the stairs, inside the temple, Selva completes his penance. His piercing is removed. He passes the two jars of milk to a priest, who pours it over a spear, before the shrine of Lord Murugan. I venture to ask him how he feels. “I feel fine, no tiredness,” he says casually. “Usually if there is tiredness it will set in after a day or two, but now I feel fine. Energised.”

The view from the cave

As we leave the temple, at the mouth of the cave, the view opens up. I see that the crowd had swollen significantly. Suddenly, I am aware of the magnitude of the event. Below us, beyond the stairs streaming with people, the shape-shifting multitude of devotees gravitates towards us, watched over by the golden Lord Murugan. Behind us, the gaping mouth of Batu Caves soars overhead. Surrounding it all was the dusk sky, slowly turning the colour of saffron.

At night, it’s a sea of of people, as the weather cools and more people begin their pilgrimage

Thaipusam at night

At night, Thaipusam morphs into a different animal. The crowd, taking advantage of cooler weather, easily triples. The music continues unabated, but the sun is replaced by lights of all colours, casting shifting shadows in every direction. It is the busiest time of Thaipusam. I am with K. Anuharan, a devotee who flies back from Australia every year for the procession. He is preparing to carry a 30 kg Kavadi to Batu Caves, but we are stuck, literally, in a Kavadi jam.

Anuharan carries his Kavadi, goes into a trance and emerges as the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman

Stuck in Kavadi rush hour

Kavadis tower over me from every direction. Large Kavadis, each accompanied by an entourage of family and friends, and often by a traditional drum troupe as well. It is a crush of human bodies, with not a moment’s silence, as the drum troupes take turns belting out rattling beats and devotees break out in chants of “Vel Vel Muruga”. We need to make it to the Batu River, where Anuharan can offer his prayers, carry his Kavadi, and initiate a trance. It is no more than a hundred metres away, but we simply cannot get there. Anuharan is already two hours late. He had planned to beat the nighttime peak period, but now finds himself smack in the middle of it. In a moment of calm, between organising his entourage, trying to navigate his Kavadi through the throng, and placating his young daughter (who was uncomfortable because she was barefoot), he catches my eye. “Tension”, he says with a smile. Why? “Already two hours late, and I had to make you wait.” I demur, he smiles. I am grateful enough that he has allowed me to join his entourage.

It is decided that it would be impossible to reach the riverbank. Anuharan will offer his prayers on the asphalt where we stand. Items are brought out and placed on sheets of newspaper, braziers lit with camphor tablets. Amidst the noise, the jostling, the semi-darkness, I can barely follow the ritual that takes place. Ash is smeared on his body and his forehead. He prostrates himself before his elders. The milk jar is filled with milk, and fastened to the centre of the Kavadi. Somewhere, someone flips a switch, and Anuharan’s Kavadi flashes with multicoloured lights. On the centrepiece of the Kavadi, a styrofoam peacock shimmers in the lights. Anuharan finds time to pick up his daughter, and shows her the centrepiece. “See, all this I did for you.” Anuharan had persuaded the Kavadi maker to add lights and a peacock to his Kavadi at the very last minute, even going to the extent of purchasing the lights on his own, at the request of his daughter. His daughter is placated.

It is time to carry his Kavadi. Bala, the Kavadi maker, helps mount the Kavadi on his shoulders, adjusting the metal fittings to make sure that the weight is evenly distributed across the shoulders. With the Kavadi strapped on, there is one final ritual before the procession begins – initiating the trance. The crowd around senses something is happening, and turn to watch. Anuharan’s elders step forward to bless him. Anuharan asks for the drum troupe to play louder. His entourage starts chanting. His mother breaks into a trance and starts dancing before him. The chanting turns urgent. Anuharan takes it all in, palms pressed together. His body goes taut. He throws his head back, and with a great cry, he emerges as the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman, and immediately starts dancing.

Presenting himself before the shrine of Lord Murugan

A long journey

Four hours later, Anuharan’s entourage is still yet to arrive at the steps of Batu Caves. A straight walk of the procession trail would take an hour at most, but it’s Kavadi rush hour. Moreover, Anuharan, possessed by the playful Lord Hanuman, insists on dancing his way there. Anuharan would later tell me that he cannot dance to save his life.

As we near the caves, the crush of bodies becomes almost suffocating. Ahead, the giant statue of Lord Murugan rises into view. With most of the Kavadis at this hour lit up like Christmas trees, I imagine the view from his vantage point would be quite surreal – dancing boats of lights floating on a sea of human bodies.

By the time we finally reach the summit, it is an hour past midnight. Below, the crowd, though still huge, has begun to thin. Inside the temple, the Kavadi is dismounted, and Anuharan, as Lord Hanuman, presents himself before the shrine of Lord Murugan. It seemed like the two deities shared a moment. Then, Anuharan takes a pinch of holy ash, presses it to his forehead, and, suddenly only human, he collapses.

His family helps him to the shrine, where his offering of milk is poured out before the deity. As he lingers for a moment longer, palms pressed together against his forehead in prayer, his face contorts with emotion. His journey is over. Even watching him from a distance, I felt the release. This is the culmination not of a five-hour Kavadi pilgrimage, but of a 48-day journey that started, with the commencement of his vows, in Australia. “Everything I’ve done is out of devotion to Lord Murugan,” he would explain later. “It’s not just the milk that I offered, I want to be the best that I can throughout the past 48 days. Hopefully that becomes a habit for the rest of the year, until the next Thaipusam.”

Anuharan and his daughter, after completing his pilgrimage

All are welcome

As I leave the temple, I notice a group of Chinese Buddhists who had also just offered milk at the shrine. One of them even had a skewer through his cheeks and piercings on his back. It led me to recall a conversation with Selva previously: “Hinduism holds nothing against other religions,” he said. “We believe God is one, and there are many ways for us to realise God.” Anuharan agrees. “Everyone has their own journey to walk. I am brought up a Hindu, so I walk in the Hindu path to realise God, just as a Christian would walk in the Christian path, and as a Buddhist would walk in the Buddhist path.” In retrospect, this inclusiveness is suddenly evident to me. Both Selva and Anuharan allowed me, a stranger, to share the most sacred part of their lives, without prying into my personal religious beliefs. And after everything, they thanked me, even before I could thank them. Their welcome bordered on veneration: “This person must be sent to us by Lord Murugan!” exclaimed a member of Selva’s entourage after the procession, taking my hand. I thank him in return, and he lifts his chin sideways, a gesture that says it all.

 

Missed the first part of this series? We go behind the scenes of Kavadi making to find out what it means to carry the burden.

Discover more things to do, see and experience in Malaysia at www.tourism.gov.my

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Cuisine in Melaka

MALACCA STRIVES ON HER HISTORY

Originally published Monday, March 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM

Malaysia’s Malacca thrives with history
The hub of Malacca’s civic colonial sites is Dutch Square — also called Red Square because of the color of its buildings.

By NAOMI LINDT The New York Times

On the tranquil grounds of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Malaysia’s oldest Taoist house of worship, late afternoon visitors bowed and offered burning wands of incense to a gilded statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the deity for whom the temple was founded in the 1600s. Tourists quietly watched or focused cameras on the structure’s ornate, figurine-covered roof.

The placidity was interrupted by the muezzin’s call from the nearby Kampung Kling Mosque, an amalgam of Corinthian columns, Portuguese tiles and Hindu carvings, built by Indian Muslims in 1748. And down the street at the 230-year-old Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, the country’s oldest Hindu temple, bare-chested and barefoot men in pastel-hued sarongs and garlands made of yellow blooms gathered to pray.

It was another seemingly sleepy afternoon in Malacca, Malaysia’s oldest city, just two hours south of Kuala Lumpur and about four hours northwest of Singapore. But underneath that sleepiness, its foundation of vibrant multiculturalism, which dates back centuries, is very much alive and increasingly accessible, as it welcomes a handful of hotels and millions of international visitors a year.

“I just love Malacca — its laid-back, slow pace of life and the history in the buildings, the people, the culture,” said a local resident, Colin Goh, 66, at Cheng Hoon, surrounded by a pair of red-and-gold sedan chairs and black-and-white photos that chronicled decades of the temple’s religious festivals. “Everything you touch that is not new is old.”

With his mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and “God only knows what else” heritage, Goh, a retired civil servant who now manages 8 Heeren Street, a restored 18th-century Dutch shophouse, embodies the city’s colonial past. Founded around 1400 by a Malay-Hindu prince, Malacca, within a century, became Southeast Asia’s most important trading port, luring an international cast of colonialists and merchants seeking a piece of the region’s lucrative spice trade.

The hub of Malacca’s civic colonial sites is Dutch Square — also called Red Square because of the color of its buildings — where tourists pose in front of the century-old Queen Victoria Fountain and trishaws festooned with plastic flowers gather. Nearby are the ruins of the A’Famosa fort, one of Asia’s oldest European-built structures, erected by the Portuguese 500 years ago, and the imposing Stadthuys, or town hall, built by the Dutch in 1650 and later painted salmon red by the British, Malacca’s last foreign rulers, whose reign lasted until 1957.

On the west side of the Malacca River, which flanks the square, along the old center’s narrow, atmospheric streets, are hundreds of lantern-hung shophouses, some distinctly Chinese in style, others bearing geometric Art Deco trademarks, and grand residences with ornately tiled stoops built by wealthy families of the past. For centuries, these streets served as the town’s commercial and residential center.

Malacca’s eclectic charm, with some help from a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2008 and its reputation as one of Malaysia’s most exciting culinary destinations, has resulted in a steady growth in tourism. Last year 12 million visitors came, an increase of over 17 percent from 2010, according to a state tourism committee.

While some heritage buildings are still occupied by generations-old family businesses — silversmiths, watchmakers, dim sum purveyors — others have newer identities. At Temple Street, a shop run by a local artist, watercolors and hand-painted tiles depict idyllic street scenes. In another building, Nancy’s Kitchen, a no-frills restaurant known for its local Nyonya cuisine, sells addictive delicacies like buttery pineapple tarts and onde-onde, glutinous rice balls filled with Malacca’s famous palm sugar, known as gula Melaka, and covered in fresh coconut.

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The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, in a grand, preserved residence on Heeren Street (officially known as Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), pays tribute to Peranakans, a group of wealthy, sophisticated families that arose from the intermarrying of Babas, or Chinese traders, and Nyonyas, or local residents.

The Peranakans forged a distinct East-meets-West culture that represents much of what makes Malacca so fascinating: A racial and religious multiculturalism that’s been cultivated and honored for centuries.This rich cultural heritage is also being celebrated in new lodging options. In 2009, a 100-year-old residential property down the street was converted into the 14-room Courtyard (AT) Heeren hotel, which blends era-appropriate furnishings with modern amenities. At the Snail House nearby, a charming French-Malaccan couple, Serge and K.C. Jardin, rent rooms in their carefully restored century-old home, with an open courtyard, a grand spiral staircase and high ceilings, offering travelers the chance to appreciate the nuances of Peranakan architecture.

“When you’re inside, you feel as if you’re in the presence of a wealthy Baba,” Jardin said. “And though you’re in the city center, it’s so quiet you forget where you are.”

Josephine Chua, a self-described “busybody housewife,” history buff and proponent of Malacca’s historic preservation, agreed.

“This place has been built on harmony since the 15th century,” she said.

Chua, 55, traces her local roots back nine generations, to 1765, when one of her paternal ancestors migrated from Fujian, China.

“The religions have coexisted side by side for centuries — that’s what makes us so unique and the town so great to live in,” she said. This is a particularly telling statement in modern-day Malaysia, whose Muslim, Malay-majority government has been criticized for exploiting ethnic divisions for the sake of political gain. “We don’t ask each other about one’s race and religion, but what we do always ask each other is,’Have you eaten?”‘

Where one has dined is not a question to be taken lightly in a city of restaurants serving home-cooked dishes, many of which have been passed down through generations. At Aunty Lee, a grandmotherly spot with lace curtains and pastel walls just a short drive from the historic center, septuagenarian chefs cook mouthwatering renditions of classic Nyonya dishes — chicken stewed with earthy, smoky keluak nuts; a fluffy omelet flavored with dried shrimp and chili; and cendol, a shaved ice dessert topped with coconut milk and gula Melaka.

Though authentic culture is easy to find in the city, residents like Chua and Goh worry about its future. The old center is now home to a recently opened Hard Rock Cafe, and many historic buildings have fallen into disrepair or been transformed into conventional souvenir shops and hostels, with no government financing to protect them.

Perhaps the most glaring example is Jonker Street, officially called Jalan Hang Jebat. Once known for its antiques shops, the strip now draws tour groups trawling stores stocked with Birkenstock knockoffs, batik linens and cheeky T-shirts with sayings like, “If YouTube MySpace, I’ll Google Your Yahoo.” It’s particularly raucous on weekends, when a food and retail night market takes over.

Still, what captivated explorers and entrepreneurs centuries ago never seems far away, whether it’s during a contemplative moment in a crumbling church or a stroll along the old town’s back streets and its fragrant Chinese medicine shops. Or while you are sipping a steaming cup of tea during a downpour at Zheng He Tea House, a hidden spot two blocks from Jonker Street. “Once you step into Malacca, you can feel the positive energy,” said Pak Siew Yong, the teahouse’s friendly owner. “Foreigners, once they come here, they don’t want to go home.”

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Tourism Malaysia

KRR RED Day

January 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm

The word ‘red’ mainly refers to one of the three primary colours that can be combined to make a whole lot of other colours. Other than it being a bold colour, there is a whole long list of other things that are also associated to the word ‘red’. For example, the colour red is normally associated to feelings of confidence, aggression and dominance. It is also a symbol of passion and anger as well as a symbol of courage and sacrifice. For the Chinese culture, the colour red harbours positive energy and is often made as the main colour in joyous occasions like weddings and Chinese New Year.

KRR staff serving complimentary drinks to thirsty guests on RED 2012

For the many people who chose to wear red on the 11th January 2012, there was only one reason that motivated them to do so, and rest assured that it has nothing to do with feelings of anger or aggression as they were mainly spotted gathering around a Kenny Rogers Roasters (KRR) restaurant nationwide. These people wearing red were celebrating life, health and vitality in conjunction with KRR’s third annual Roasters Eating Day (RED).

KRR team working at superspeed during RED lunchtime rush

As a lot of us get caught up in the New Year resolution-making frenzy, a majority of people end up making a long list of resolutions that are forgotten after the enthusiasm dies down. By the time work and life matters starts taking priority again, healthy eating usually takes a back seat. This is the reason why RED is held annually on the second Wednesday of every New Year. It is designed to ‘remind’ the public and motivate them to achieve and maintain their health resolutions for the year. All that a person need to do to enjoy two (2) Kenny’s Quarter Meal for the price of one is to dress in any shade of red.

Large crowd of RED in celebration of ROASTERS Eating Day

So if you missed the opportunity to be part of this year’s RED affair, fret not as Kenny Rogers Roasters are always there to offer good and healthy food at an affordable price all year round.

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