Sunday, February 20, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Caves of Batu

It's ten o'clock in the morning and the air is already heavy with heat and moisture. I'm standing at the foot of a limestone hill, facing a wide staircase that seems to rise up into infinity.

“Don't worry, it's only 270 steps” says my driver, slapping me on the shoulder. “I'll see you in half an hour. Maybe 45 minutes. OK?”

He turns and leaves, to head back to the air-conditioned van. I start my ascent.

That's the second-biggest statue of Lord Murugan I've ever seen.
I am only here because of my driver, who suggested it as a nice diversion on our way to the interior of peninsular Malaysia. We aren't even out of the city yet- the park that contains the cave complex is bordered by a busy highway, with shops and stores across the street.

The first thing you see is a statue- a giant golden statue- rising about 1/3 of the way up the side of the hill. From its design, you can tell from a distance you're entering a Hindu holy site.

Then there's those other things that make for a Hindu shrine. Holy men half-naked, faces painted, giving blessings to pilgrims; monkeys on the steps, looking for treats; and ramshackle shops for changing money, selling food and hawking the tackiest-looking religious paraphernalia. Day-glow back-lit spinning wall clock of Vishnu, anyone?

I climb the steps, thankful for the regular landings but cursing the lacksidaisical Asian attention to a safe riser/run ratio. About halfway up I pass the statue's head. The view of the city improves behind me, while before me a large entranceway beckons.

I reach the top of the stairs and enter into anyone's holy place.

Before you is a 100-metre high cavern. Bats flitter in and out of the cave. An opening high above brings natural light into the scene. Birds flying near the ceiling bring some perspective, while the scattered pilgrims and tourists on the vast floor attest to the capacity of the place. I am glad I'm here on an off-day; it looks like the base of the cave could comfortably accommodate 1,000 people.

The Batu Caves have been a holy site for Hindus in Malaysia for over 100 years. The last 50 years have seen more development and ability to handle crowds, who now come from around the world. A sign indicates a cable car may be in the works.

There's much to admire in the vast space. Hindu statues of gods and heros populate niches and crevices where the cave wall meets the concrete floor. Larger buildings house more complex statue arrangements, and pilgrims seek blessings from monks and holy men.  Nature and man working together to create a place of wonder. 

It's worth a quick wander around. I stop at the top of a flight of stairs of the farthest cavern, and look down. It's funny how the mind works. The cave is hard to accept as real, it looks like a special effect, a matte-painting cavern from a 1980s adventure movie. I have to force myself to register that this is really something nature can accomplish all on her own.

All we can do is worship in it.

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