Thaipusam festivities at the Batu Caves Temple in Kuala Lumpur have been somewhat lackluster this year, marred by a below-average turnout believed to be attributed to an apparent boycott campaign.
Visitors to Batu Caves yesterday evening and this morning reported that the crowds were relatively thinner this year - numbering only in their tens of thousands - unlike previous years where devotees could reach more than one million.
One seasoned visitor, businessman S Babu, 32, said he was at the temple at 6am this morning and was surprised by the lack of congestion at the temple.
“Previous years, we can’t even walk. This morning however, it was as easy as an evening stroll,” said Babu.
Another visitor to Batu Caves said an unusual message was played repeatedly on the public announcement system, referring to a boycott or sorts.
“The message express gratitude to those who came to Batu Caves despite SMS messages flying around (calling for a boycott),” he said.
Samy: No change in crowd
According to AFP, one SMS message had called on Hindu devotees who did turn up at Batu Caves to use their sandals to pelt political leaders including S Samy Vellu, leader of Indian-based MIC.
The veteran politician, who has sided with the government and been accused of neglecting the interests of his constituents, however insisted there were at least half a million people at the complex and a million the day before.
"I have come to Thaipusam since I was 11 years old. I know the crowd. It is the same as before," he told reporters at Batu Caves.
"I don't think religious people who went to pray to Lord Murugan will listen to all the naughty fellows," he said of the SMS campaign.
"Who can threaten us? Anyone who threatens us, we can find out where he is. It takes only five hours to find out where he is. They can't run away from us."
Since the Hindraf rally on Nov 25, calls to boycott Batu Caves temple committee have been making rounds through SMS.
The MIC-linked temple managers were blamed for allegedly assisting police who cracked down hard on a demonstration by Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) supporters there last November, using tear gas and water cannons.
When contacted, Hindraf coordinator RS Thanenthiran denied suggestions that the movement was behind the boycott.
“No, we can’t tell people to boycott Lord Murugan... we can’t tell people to forgo their annual vows,” he said.
On the lower turnout at Batu Caves, Thanenthiran said it was a sign that people have not forgiven the Batu Caves temple committee.
“There were thousands at Batu Caves on Nov 25. They witnessed what happened and they will tell thousands more,” he added.
Till now, the actual events surrounding the Nov 25 incident are still unclear.
Some quarters claimed that the police locked several thousand ‘Hindraf supporters’ in the Batu Caves compound in the early hours of Nov 25 before firing tear gas and chemical-laced water on them.
The crowd had gathered at the famous temple before moving to the city to join other participants in the mammoth Hindraf rally later that day.
In an apparent reaction to the boycott campaign, the temple committee has made the RM10 fee to carry offerings in the temple optional.
“It’s up to you. But, if no one pays, how are we to celebrate Thaipusam? We need money for organising the celebrations and for cleaning up the temple surroundings,” said temple secretary M Devarajoo, according to The Sun.
Devarajoo added that the fee for children to carry offerings - milk pots (paal kudam) or kavadi - has been slashed from RM10 to RM5.
Several stallholders and devotees lamented the small turnout and said ethnic Indians should work together to promote their cause.
"The crowd is normally double or triple this size. Now it's so small, so there is not so much of a great mood this time," said N Kumaran, 41, a civil servant who has taken part in the festival for the past 14 years.
Sweet seller Joga Singh said that with the crowds so thin he and other vendors were not making any money this year.
"I think many people are afraid to come because of the SMS to boycott. Our business is suffering because of it," he told AFP.