A DEEP ENCOUNTER WITH SPIRIT ON RETURNING FROM INDIA
Written February, 2004
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at 7 p.m. on the way home from India. I was excited, wanting to make my trip last indefinitely, and had a strange urge/drive/compelling desire to visit the Batu Caves before leaving here the next morning. I didn't really know much about them, but had heard that there were preparations going on for a celebration/festival.
After about an hour of checking in, and then trying to find someone to go to the caves with me to share the transportation expense (around $80!), the taxi driver came in and said, “Okay, how much do you have.” (He had been amused while watching me try to find a way to satisfy this compelling urge to go to the caves with the money I had left!) I told him that I could only spend $50, which left a $20 traveller's check to fly home with. He said, "Let's go," and so we drove a little over an hour, and arrived at ten p.m. at the Batu Caves. There were swirling lights like those used to advertise on the face of the cliffs as we approached, and I thought, "What am I doing!" ... but I got out of the car, to the sensory overload of ferris wheels, carnival balloons, cotton candy, blaring music, and other typical carnival scenery. I finally found the steps to the caves, and then I heard them ... the drums ... playing with purpose, intent … and then I saw ... a pilgrim was sacrificing, and journeying across the large courtyard and up the 272 cave steps to the shrines at the top, the temples of the deities set in stone. I felt gradually altered/altared, as I climbed with him up the steps, following alongside, while his circle of supporters waved the lights (aarati), played incessantly on the drums, chanting “Vel vel,” urging him onward. I don't know how far he had walked before this time, or how long his fast had been. He danced, sweated, fell, threw flower petals from his necklaces, sang, walked on fire, and more. The women were all in bright saffron-colored saris, and many carried milk pots on their heads to offer to the deities. This pilgrim had pierced, and had a number of prayer pots hung on his back with what looked like a kind of fishhook. He wore a turban that protruded from the front of his head quite far (how do they get them to stand out like that?), and was obviously in an ecstatic state, falling at times, dancing strong at others. So there I was in this ceremony, chanting "VEY, VEY" with the others, caught up in the ascent to the temple, watching, focusing, opening, putting one foot in front of the other, feeling carried on the rhythms of the drums, the scent of ghee (oil) fires, offering my own support to the pilgrim on his journey and feeling strengthened by his offering. The ferris wheels continued spinning and the blaring music created background din. At the gopuram (entry) to the temple at the top of the steps, I looked up, and there, in the split of the cave, an almost full moon shone, creating a circle of white light against a black sky. It was awesome. Bats were flying and singing their own squeaky chants. The scent of bananas, coconuts, fresh cut flowers, and incense mingled with the ghee oils, creating such a thick pungent humid odor that hung in the air. Other sacrifices were being carried up the steps as well, hung in saffron cloth between sugar cane poles. One couple carried a young boy in this manner, between them, while others slung sugar cane poles over their shoulders with offering pots hung from both ends.
And then came all the shrines, in the first cave, as well as up more steps into a second cave. Beautiful painted shrines to so many deities in this Shaivite temple to Lord Murugan, or Lord Skandi, or by other names. Lots of preparations were going on for the next days’ celebrations, which I came to find out attract over a million people! I've got to say I was so happy to be here the night BEFORE the procession carrying the deity, BEFORE the 1.2 million people! Malaysia is trying to declare this day, called ThaiPoosam, a national holiday. The offerings are called kevadis, and the chant "Vel, Vel" I came to find out is the lance that was given to Lord Muruga to defeat the Asuric forces. In the cave shrines, more smoke from ghee fires, coconuts, offerings of incense, plastic bags with banana and flower offerings by the hundreds, ashes, ashes, ashes, bright lights ... more pilgrims, woman dancing in trance before the shrine, eyes meeting eyes, windows of the soul ... dark eyes smiling into light eyes, light eyes shining into dark eyes ... it was an incredible gift to spend my last night of the trip in this way. Unforgettable, deep, a blessing, a reminder to follow that which compels, a ritual so that I might stay awake as I leave this land of wonder, of such ancient wisdom and deep ways, the land of Mother India.
Murugan, the ever-youthful champion-deity of South Asian song, legend and literature, has long been far more than His diminutive appearance suggests. Presenting the outward resemblance of a boy or a youth (or any other form that pleases Him!), Guha 'the Mysterious' repeatedly surfaces in myth, lore and legend from remote prehistory down to the present, for He always is in the 'here and now' (Tamil: ippo-inge), within and yet beyond time and space.
Although best-known today as the God of the South (i.e. South India and Sri Lanka), in His ancient Sanskritic aspect as KarttikeyaSkanda 'the Leaper' he was long one of India's most popular deities during the classical Gupta age and even earlier in late Vedic times. And although uncounted thousands of years old, this pan-Indian god of love, war, paradox and mystery continues to exert His charm upon millions of young and old, urban and rural, rich and poor alike even today at the dawn of a new millennium.