Surviving One of Asia's Strangest Festivals

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Kuala Lumpur looks like Singapore, if Singapore decided to let itself go and grow some stubble. In certain parts, it is clean and manicured, with sweeping lawns and a complimentary mix of colonial and Islamic architecture. There are modern, soulless avenues surrounding the towering Petronas buildings, and ramshackle alleyways in Little India and Chinatown. Eating, like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is the primary pastime -- perhaps more here than elsewhere, because of the relative scarcity of alcohol.

Eating too many meals in too short a time, I managed to piece together a story about South Indian food, which I'll post here after it's published. The Tamil Indian population that runs those South Indian restaurants add a great deal of character to the place; Kuala Lumpur seemed, to this outsider, a lot like an Indian city -- but one that happens to be governed by Malays and managed by Chinese.

Men worked themselves into a trance-like state to deafening drums and prayers chanted on squawking megaphones.

That particular Indianness was magnified by the Thaipusam festival. Each year in Kuala Lumpur about 1.5 million Tamil Hindus from across Malaysia descend on the Batu Caves, caverns that lie on the city's grittier periphery. They head there to honor the birth of the Lord Marugan, the Tamil god of war. It is the largest celebration of its kind, larger, I'm told, than any Thaipusam festival in the Tamil homeland.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

I visited the festival at its height -- and it was transportingly strange. Men (and some women) worked themselves into a trance-like state, as their entourages beat deafening drums and chanted prayers on squawking megaphones. Then, steel hooks were inserted beneath flesh -- through cheeks and under arms, or buried into backs and chests. On top of this, men carried huge kavali -- peacock-feathered mantles that bounced up and down above their heads as they strutted and spun. Dancing through the crowd, the procession reminded me of a macabre Mummers Parade (I'm from just outside of Philly, where feathers suffice).

After a walk across the festival, I saw a man affixed to a steel frame, hanging entirely by hooks. About eight men beneath him raised him up, spinning him round an astonished crowd. Splayed out, superman-style, he maintained a placid smile.

In that intense heat, surrounded by the smells of ghee and yogurt souring in the sun, of massive pots of lentils and garbage, bombarded by screeching music from a thousand competing speakers, I felt dizzy and disoriented. Exactly like I felt the first time I stepped out of a taxi and into Old Delhi's frenetic, distressing streets.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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