The Antiquity of Modernity

The minute I step out of my hostel, I’m engulfed in a tightly packed crowd lining the sidewalk. I push my way through, passing parents hoisting their kids up on their shoulders and volunteers passing out food. Bewildered, I crane my neck to peer through the crowd and see the procession passing. Flashes of multi colored saris, metallic shrines and bundles of flowers make up the parade. A loud splitting crack sets off thunderous cheers and I look up to see fireworks illuminating the night sky. It was midnight and the celebrations of the Thaipusam Festival had begun as the devotees begin their pilgrimage on foot to the Batu Caves, eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur.

Thaipusam Festival devotees at Batu caves in Malaysia
Thousands of devotees ascend the 280 steps leading to the Batu Caves

Thaipusam Fesitval is a Hindu celebration that is held each year during the full moon in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. Primarily held in the Tamil-speaking communities, the festival in Kuala Lumpur is one of the largest ones outside of India, with over 1.5 million attendees. I wake at dawn the next morning and catch a train to the caves to witness the arrival of the pilgrims. As the train pulls into the station, a gate blocks hundreds of people waiting the arrival of their friends and relatives. Many hold baskets of food and water with bright jewels on their foreheads keeping an eye on their children who run around with their faces covered in paint. I weave through the crowd finding the base of the mountain where a carnival has been set up, featuring loud music and stalls selling everything from saris to fruit juice to souvenirs. Arriving at the path entrance, I stop and peer up at the steep, 280 steps leading up to the caves. Watching over the thick crowd is a golden statue, measuring 47 yards in height, of the god Subramaniam. The festival is dedicated to this god and marks a day of penance and thanksgiving.

public sacrifices at Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia

As a form of penance or sacrifice, many carry “kavadis” which literally mean “burden”. These burdens range from jugs, coconuts, oranges and even floats. The objects are attached to the bare backs of the devotees through metal hooks and piercings. Others carry floats above their heads and the stilts dig into their sides. Some have hooks with strings attached that pull on the skin on their back. Women carry jugs on their heads or pierce their mouths shuts with a spear going through each cheek and out the other side. They sacrifice their bodies to piercings and metal hooks, carrying these burdens on the eight-mile journey from Kuala Lumpur to the base of the mountain, then up the 280 stairs to the caves. In return, they are hoping for favors from their gods. Both men and women ascend the mountain, carrying these burdens, in the scorching heat, chanting prayers as they go.

pilgrims insert hooks into their backs during the Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia
The kavadis, or “burdens” are metal hooks that pierce into the skin on the pilgrims backs

 On my way up I pass people of all ages who have stepped to the side to take a break. The humidity paired with the steep stairs make the climb treacherous. I finally reach the mouth of the caves that opens up into a large entrance hall. As I press through the crowd I pass shaman-type healers who are performing a ritual of removing the spears and piercings from the body of the sacrificees. They are chanting and pouring white powder as they slap their backs after each removal. Not a drop of blood is spilt during the festival.

devotees gather to celebrate Thaipusam Festival at Batu Caves in Malaysia

In the back is a temple with several alters where pilgrims of all ages stop to pray. The caves are packed to the brim with the devotees, pilgrims, friends and families, which would be a fire hazard in any other country. However, no one worries about that. In fact, this day perfectly shows how Malaysia has held on to its history and culture while stepping into the modern world.  It’s this thousand of years old ancient Hindu ritual that takes place in a cave, on a mountain overlooking the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur’s financial district. And it’s this very fusion of cultures and ethnicities; religions and rituals, antiquity and modernity that best represent Malaysia.

~ By Teresa Murphy of Tess Travels. Murphy visited the Thaipsum Festival, a Hindu ritual that takes place every year in the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Variations of the Thanksgiving Turkey

What started as a traditional North American holiday is now also celebrated by millions of immigrants and ethnic groups who call the United States home. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists (English) and Wampanoag Indians (Native Americans) shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

Given that the United States has become a melting pot of different races, ethnicities and nationalities over the last two centuries, it is only reasonable to expect that preparation of the Thanksgiving turkey is somewhat influenced by cultural palates.

Most households prepare a whole roasted turkey rubbed with butter and herbs, but here are some other variations of the Thanksgiving turkey reflecting the cultural diversity of the country.

Chinese Glaze Turkey – The American-Chinese substituted turkey in their popular duck recipe. This delicious creation has a glaze of soy sauce, honey, sesame and ginger. We recommend a side of steamed dumplings, sautéed green beans and fried rice.

Asian Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo courtesy Food and Wine
Asian Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo courtesy Food and Wine

Tandoori Turkey – Indians love grilled meats (usually chicken, goat, fish) basted with tandoori marinade (a sauce blend of coriander, cumin, cloves, chili, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, fenugreek, salt and pepper). Whole turkey can be cooked on an open grill or slow broiled in the oven. Serve with mint chutney, yogurt relish and rice pilaf.

Tandoori Turkey. Photo courtesy
Tandoori Turkey. Photo courtesy

Raw Vegetarian Turkey – Non meat eaters enjoy a raw turkey look-alike spread made entirely of vegetables. Lettuce, celery, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers layered in a creative display also makes a good starter for a Thanksgiving party. Show up at a potluck party with this and wow your coworkers!

Turkey of raw vegetables . Photo from Pintrest
Turkey of raw vegetables. Photo from Pinterest

Extreme Mexican Turkey – Mexican cook and writer Pati Jinich, of Pati’s Mexican Table uses citrus and achiote paste in her turkey recipe, then wraps it in banana leaves and bakes it in aluminum foil to emulate the ancient technique of cooking food in underground pits. Melissa Trimmer of Le Cordon Bleu Chicago also suggests a Turkey mole served with rice and beans, and flan for dessert.

Mexican Turkey. Photo by Penny De Los Santos
Mexican Turkey. Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Peruvian Turkey – The slow cooked Peruvian spice rubbed turkey is a close cousin of popular Peruvian grilled chicken dish. Chef John of Food Wishes serves it with chile verde instead of brown gravy.

Peruvian rubbed turkey. Photo by FoodWishes
Peruvian rubbed turkey. Photo by FoodWishes

Italian Thanksgiving Turkey – Many Americans are Italian decedents so its only natural to have Italian inspired dishes at the Thanksgiving table. Nonna Carolina Marino, originally from Calabria, stuffs her turkey with layers of delicious Italian sausage, Parmesan cheese, fresh herbs and Porcini Risotto. Watch the full recipe on YouTube.

African Roast Turkey – African Birdseye Chillies paired with brown sugar give the turkey is sweet and spicy flavor. Another good option is to rub Nigerian Suya (grilled meat) spice on the turkey for some smokiness and stuff it with Jollof rice.

If you have an ethnic inspired turkey recipe to share, please feel free to share it in the comments box below. Happy Thanksgiving!

Italian Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo from Cooking with Nonna
Italian Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo from Cooking with Nonna