One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…. Our voices melded into a rhythmic trot. With each stomp we made our way past bystanders and left a trail of numbers. 50, 51, 52, 53, 54… The sunlight was beating down on our backs. The heat penetrated our clothes and gathered on our skin. The numbers began to catch in our mouths as our climb slowed to ensure each number was included. 123, 124, 125… “I want a picture,” I gasped balancing on a step to catch a shot of the scene ahead of us. “Ok.” 234, 235,235-236… “Oh wait, we are out of sync.” 234, 235, 236… Seeing the stairs cut away just ahead our legs pumped as we threw ourselves up the last few steps. 269,270,271 aannnddd 272…
Triumphantly we swung around to take in the view. At that height we shared the perspective of the enormous Murugan statue guarding the entrance to the Batu Caves. The Hindu god stood proudly before a cityscape spanning the horizon.
The caves originally provided shelter to an indigenous people called the Temuan. Then around 1860 Chinese settlers began excavating the guano (bat and bird poo) to use as fertilizer for their fields. Colonial authorities recorded the caves in the late 70s.
After this less-than-glamorous start the caves began to be promoted as a place of worship in 1885 by an Indian trader and Tamil devotee, named K. Thamboosamy Pillai. He decided to devote the temple to the god Murugan after he noticed the cave entrance looks like the head of a vel, or divine spear.
This Murugan (or Skanda) statue attracts over a million devotees and onlookers in mid-January to mid-February during the Thaipusam, a Hindu festival. In Malaysia the festival is a public holiday where people give thanks to Murugan for answering their prayers.
Many devotees will carry an ornamental structure filled with milk called a kavadi on their shoulders. Sounds simple enough, but the structure is attached to the devotees’ bodies with steel spikes and hooks.
Wilting under the sun’s attention my friend and I fled into the cave. To call the entrance a gaping maw would be an understatement. It looked like a grand hall to the underworld.
The inner chamber was positively massive!
It felt like one could shove a whole town into this cave. I’m marking it on my post-apocalyptic map. If there is a zombie invasion I bet those stairs would dissuade attacks.
Comprised of limestone, the caves were formed around 400 million years ago. Now they are home to bats, monkeys and birds—the oddest creature present being the roosters waltzing around the cave floor. The monkeys are quite happy with the arrangement I think. They were wooing the tourists for treats the whole time my friend and I were there.
The innermost chamber of the cave is host to a massive wall of plants, which the monkeys can easy escape into when they need a break from human interaction.
I was grateful for the cool temperature within the caverns, but it was an amazing experience to walk to the final chamber and step into the sunlight within that stone cathedral.
The stalactites looming far overhead in the middle section were closer to the ground in the far chamber and one could even touch them—or hang off them as I saw one brave individual do. He was totally nonchalant about it too; just walked up, dug his fingers in and hefted his feet off the ground.
Having reached the end, my friend and I began to wander back down the length of the cave. As we passed a small alcove hosting a Hindu deity surrounded by curious bystanders I was reminded of my experience from the night before.
To be continued in Part 2