Thaipusam / Malaysia / 2011


During the Thaipusam festival, Batu Caves hosts the largest gathering of Hindu devotees in Malaysia. Close to 800,000 people throng Batu Caves for this celebration.


Thaipusam is a religious festival where Hindus pay annual homage to Lord Muruga. Especially in the twilight of early morning the festival has a wild vibe that I really liked. The air is filled with excitement and tension when the drums reverberate in the streets, the bodies and heads. Photographing for hours in the middle of the action, surrounded by hundreds of devotees in ecstasy and the cries of incitement uttered by a huge crowd, I realized how contagious trance can be.


The highlight of this celebration is essentially a procession: the kavadi procession.


Kavadi is an individual act of worship by bearing a ritualized burden. The burdens range from pitchers of milk to enormous portable altars. Additionally offerings are placed on each kavadi that goes on the shoulder or the head of the pilgrim. Kavadi bearers have to be in trance before sharp skewers are thrust into their tongues or through the cheeks. Some have hooks and spears pierced through parts of their bodies. Sometimes strings are attached to the kavadi from the hooks.


Many devotees prepare and start kavadi at the edge of the river and then dance the approximately five-kilometer distance to the giant statue of Murugan, before finally climbing up the 272 steps to the Batu Caves. Upon arrival in the cave, devotees will fulfill their vows, offer thanksgiving prayers and penance to Lord Murugan.


In a spiritual sense it is seen as a journey from the periphery, from the mundane world to the centre, the axis mundi, where direct communication can be made with the deity.


When I visited Thaipusam, in Malaysia, I decided to focus on portrait pictures about trance and ecstasy, because it is the most intimate approach to witness this intense expression of faith and to visualize the power of religion.