Maria Skouras

Maria Skouras (eHomemakers): Maria describes herself as a life-long learner. She earned a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a Masters of Science degree from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and a Master of the Arts from NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science in Cultural Sociology. She then worked for seven years as the Senior Policy Analyst in NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs. Maria has been an active board member of The Posterus Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York City, studied abroad in Italy, London, China and Hong Kong and traveled extensively through the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. After her fellowship Maria wrote: "Speaking with locals and living in a country is the best way to learn about the real lives of citizens, not just the stories in the mainstream media. I will be more critical of what I read as a result of this experience.”

Penance and Gratitude at Batu Caves

23 Jan

On the eve of the main Thaipusam celebration, Ching Ching and I went to the river bend to watch the devotees prepare to walk barefoot up 272 stairs to the Subramaniar Swamy temple at the top of Batu Caves.  Participants cleansed themselves in the river and some had their heads shaved in tents as an emblem of humility.  Various temples set up stations with images of Hindu deities where offerings such as bananas, coconuts, and milk could be left and archana (prayers) could be conducted.

Offerings-note the Maria brand milk!

Offerings-note the Maria brand milk!

Many families hire drummers to play devotional music while they prepare and to accompany them on their journey to the temple.   The rhythm is intended to provide motivation to those carrying kavadis, or “burdens” that represent their reverence for Lord Murugan, up the stairs.  There are many different sizes and styles of kavadis, which may be adorned with peacock feathers, bells, flowers or images of other deities.  The act of carrying the kavadi takes extreme religious commitment and physical endurance.

A huge kavadi reaches its destination.

A huge kavadi reaches its destination.

For myself and other spectators, the most shocking part of the ceremony was the piercing.  The piercings symbolize self-sacrifice and the utmost devotion.  Also, Lord Murugan is praised for defeating several evil demons with a holy spear called a vel, which looks similar to the long metal lances that are used to puncture the cheeks, tongue, and forehead.  Those who desire to be pierced go into a deep trance-like state and do not even wince or bleed when pierced.  It is believed that their unity with Lord Murugan prevents them from feeling any pain.

Being pierced while in a trance.

Being pierced while in a trance.

I had never seen anyone in a trance before or even thought it was possible.  After seeing the transformation, I am a believer!

Similar acts of penance are performed when hooks holding flowers, fruit, or bells are inserted into the backs of devotees.  Again, they show no signs of discomfort.

Hooking fruit into a participant's signs of pain!

Hooking fruit into a participant's signs of pain!

While still in the trance, many of the pierced devotees danced in the middle of their drum circles.  Some of them had to be restrained by family members or with chains because they embodied Lord Murugan’s spirit and were acting like wild animals.  When the spirit was released, they achieved calmness.  I witnessed a fellow spectator go into a trance herself and start screaming and rolling on the ground because she had been inhabited by a spirit that was released by a devotee preparing to carry a kavadi.  I was told that she must have had a clear mind to be able to personify the spirit.  (Luckily, my mind was too overwhelmed to be hospitable to any spirits.)

A devotee wearing chains of restraint.

A devotee wearing chains of restraint.

Not all devotees choose to perform extreme acts of piercing or carrying a kavadi.  Many carried a small burden or symbol of devotion called a pal kodum, or a pot of milk, on top of their heads to the top of Batu Caves.

Women carrying pal kodum to the top of Batu Caves

Women carrying pal kodum to the top of Batu Caves

Once the devotees arrive at the Cave’s temple and perform their final prayers, their piercings and hooks are removed.  In addition to the temple, there was also a store where attendees could buy necklaces and religious items or purchase a photo of themselves to remember the occasion.

A number of commercial enterprises added a different dimension to the experience for visitors and participants.  Hundreds of thousands of attendees slowly pushed though rows of vendors selling food, sweets, cds, clothing, toys, and religious objects.  Temporary vegetarian restaurants were set-up to feed the hungry masses and families waited in line to ride the swings, roller coasters, and other amusement park attractions.  Religious prayers were recited over a loudspeaker system while jumbo screens allowed spectators to see individual devotees through the throngs of people.  So much to see and do at Thaipusam!

Climbing the stairs to reach the temple at the top

Climbing the stairs to reach the temple at the top

On my third evening in Malaysia, I experienced the marvels of Thaipusam.  I’ve created my first video post to transport you there, too.  Let me know what you think!


Posted By Maria Skouras

Posted Jan 23rd, 2011


  • Ruth

    January 25, 2011


    Maria – this looks amazing!
    We all miss you back in NYC but wonderful to share a bit of your adventure through this blog
    Looking forward to more!

  • Danielle

    January 26, 2011


    Hey Maria! What an amazing experience you are having already! I am sure this is something that you are going to remember forever. I hope that your time there is all as gratifying and fulfilling as this!

  • Chelsea-Lyn Rudder

    January 30, 2011


    Hi Maria,

    So exciting to see and hear about all of your adventures. The blog looks great. I will tweet it to my followers :)I can’t wait to see you in KL. 5 weeks and counting.

  • Karin

    February 28, 2011


    Incredible footage and excellent shots. Incredible how painless the devotees make it appear. Keep up the good work!

  • Ewa

    October 14, 2015


    Batu Caves in MalaysiaJuly 11, 2012For those who visited Batu Caves telpme , should you really need extra information before/during your trip to the you would like to telpme, what would it’s? About? I am conducting a survey to produce a free ebook on informations about the telpme, the deities, prayers info.Around Half hour drive away from Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves really are a natural sightseeing attraction plus an important pilgrimage destination. Batu Caves really are a prehistoric limestone formation which derive their name from the Batu River that flows past the hills. Some say the name signifies a close village called Batu. The telpme inside the caves is focused on Lord Murugan and is one of the most revered Hindu Pilgrimage destinations outside India. You have to climb up 272 steps to get to the caves but the breathtaking views of the caves count every moment of those efforts. At the starting of the staircase, there’s huge statue of Lord Murugan. Rising to height of 42.7 metres, this really is the largest statue of Lord Murugan anywhere in the world.Many people hear a melody where others hear random notes. The caves may have the same reflective effect. I have been in these caves late at night during Thaipusam the color, profusion, bell-ringing, coconut cracking and smoke were phantasmagoric and almost hallucinogenic. I’ve been there in the early morning and watched sweepers with long palm fronds gracefully sweep through mist, and experienced the tranquillity of the caves. If the KTM commuter train ever gets its act together, they’ll open the train line all the method to the caves, from Port Klang, and the caves can be really, very accessible, and I will be able to have the third connection with the caves: I want to be in those caves throughout a whopping thunderstorm.

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