Thaipusam 2012

After having a great full course Chinese Dinner for Chap Goh Meh with the fellow PEN Lovers celebrating the end of Chinese New Year festivals, we headed towards Batu Caves to have some shutter clicking action. Coincidentally, it was the eve of a significant Indian celebration, Thaipusam, which gathered a huge crowd, creating a massive traffic jam at all roads leading toward Batu Caves, and out of it. We intended to shoot the celebration and the beautiful Indian culture and tradition, which is unique and performed at such a grand scale at Batu Caves.

Just in case you do not know what Thaipusam is, a quick excerpt from Wikipedia to explain what the celebration is about:

"Thaipusam (Tamil: தைப்பூசம், Taippūcam ?) is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February). It is celebrated not only in countries where the Tamil community constitutes a majority, but also in countries where Tamil communities are smaller, such as Mauritius[1], Singapore[2] and Malaysia.[3] The word Thaipusam is derived from the month name Thai and Pusam, which refers to a star that is at its highest point during the festival. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel "spear" so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam. There is a misconception among people that Thaipusam marks Murugan's birthday; however, it is believed that Vaikhasi Vishakam, which falls in the Vaikhasi month (May/June), is Murugan's birthday."

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital lenses: 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 and 50mm F2 macro, Sigma 30mm F1.4

How is the celebration performed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? We do have a large population of Indians here in Malaysia. Thaipusam is probably the only celebration that gathered such immensely large crowd, recorded at 1.5 million pilgrims in one concentrated spot (year 2007).

The following is another except from Wikipedia page on Batu Caves, to further elaborate the details of the Thaipusam celebration specifically in Kuala Lumpur.

"Batu Caves serves as the focus of the Hindu community's yearly Thaipusam (Tamil: தைபூசம்) festival. It has become a pilgrimage site for not only Malaysian Hindus, but Hindus worldwide from countries such as India, Australia and Singapore.

A procession begins in the wee hours of the morning on Thaipusam from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur leading up to Batu Caves as a religious undertaking to Lord Muruga lasting eight hours. Devotees carry containers containing milk as offering to Lord Muruga either by hand or in huge decorated carriers on their shoulders called 'kavadi'.

The kavadi may be simple wooden arched semi-circular supports holding a carrier foisted with brass or clay pots of milk or huge, heavy ones which may rise up to two metres, built of bowed metal frames which hold long skewers, the sharpened end of which pierce the skin of the bearers torso. The kavadi is decorated with flowers and peacock feathers imported from India. Some kavadi may weigh as much as a hundred kilograms.

After a bath in the nearby Sungei Batu (Rocky River), the devotees wend their way to the Temple Cave and with remarkable endurance they climb the flights of stairs to the temple in the cave. Devotees use the wider centre staircase while worshippers and onlookers throng up and down those balustrades off on either side.

When the kavadi bearer arrives at the foot of the 272 step stairway leading up to the Temple Cave, the devotee has to make the arduous climb against gravity- against the press of the bustling masses.

Priests attend to the kavadi bearers. Consecrated ash is sprinkled over the hooks and skewers piercing the devotees flesh before they are removed. No blood is shed during the piercing and removal."

This shooting session was particularly challenging for me. I have attempted shooting at similar situation last year (click to read my blog entry for Thaipusam 2011). Last year, I went to Batu Caves hours before the sunrise. This year, we decided to go there straight from dinner, and shoot all the way to midnight. The crowd this time was a lot more massive, and there were just too many people flooding the entire area, making walking and moving around quite a difficult task by themselves. The biggest challenge I face is to get to the position that I wanted to shoot from, or even to get close enough. There were just too many things happening around, people moving from everywhere, and so many obstacles coming in from all directions to execute a proper, clean composition. At the same time, we had to respect the devotees that take the practice seriously, and not in any way should we become intrusive or obstructing their paths. I faced similar problems last year, but this year was a heck lot worse.

I chose not to shoot with flash, for obvious reason: not to disturb the concentration of the devotees. If you have seen their feats of strength performed, carrying those large and heavy Kavadi, you will know that those are no simple tasks. Not using flash, and being thrown in such low light condition was not exactly favourable for Olympus user such as myself. I shoot mostly with the Sigma 30mm F1.4 and Olympus Zuiko 50mm F2 macro, utilizing the large apertures, but even so, I needed to bump the ISO up to 2000 and beyond, when lighting situation worsens. Noise was apparent in all my shots, as predicted, but it was necessary to freeze movements. The most annoying part of all would be the mixed lighting from different source of lights, casting inconsistent colors casts and light intensity over the subjects.

Was I satisfied with the shots? I definitely did better than last year but I was not very happy with the overall outcome. A lot of the shots could have been better. Again, my major complain would have been lighting. I have mentioned last year that it might have been more interesting if I were shooting under natural sunlight, instead of night darkness. After all, Olympus never really shines in low light no flash shooting situations. Nevertheless, there will always be next year to shoot again.

Have you seen a Thaipusam festival before? Or shot one? Do tell !!


  1. Robin,
    The combination of wide-opened fast lens, high ISO and mixture of natural and artificial lights actually worked, creating vivid and intense images of scenes of devotion that you have to be there to experience. Thank you for the opportunity to see and partially experience it without being there.

  2. Brings back so much memories... I haven't been in a live Thaipusam event for decades.... thanks!

  3. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for sharing the night shots in Batu Caves. Nice!!!

    We were there on Sunday noon and my Hubby tested his new gadget capturing some shots. You may want to view them at my space...

    Have a good day.

  4. Thanks Hanh !!
    I am sure the experience would have been amazing if you were actually there, and shooting it too.

    Thanks Calex.

  5. i dont know how you do it, bro? pictures look vivid and sharp to me! wow!
    gotta put this on my bucketlist, to shoot and experience Thaipusam

  6. Hello Richard,
    The vivid and sharp part must have been the high contrast in the images. look closely, the blacks are all black, I boosted the contrast a lot in post-processing.
    Yes, you MUST at least visit a Thaipusam festival, very remarkable I must say.

  7. Off-topic but when are you getting your hands on the E-M5?

  8. Hello Zyran,
    not so soon I am afraid. hope some miracles will happen.

  9. Olympus should really put an E-M5 in your hand like, last week or so. It would push me ever closer to doing things I shouldn't. Like getting an E-M5 when I already have the P3. :)

  10. Hello Rasmus,
    I wish that would happen too !!

  11. Hi Mr.Robin Wong,
    This pictures is really wonderful!

    Tony Kansai

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  13. Awesome photography……..the only thing I don’t like about them is that I didn’t shoot them.
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