We take the train to Batu Caves, the last stop on the line running from the center of Kuala Lumpur.
The streets near the caves are lined with vendors selling technicolor Indian sweets and plump flower garlands. Above, pigeons roost on electrical lines. The ground beneath is stained with a history of their droppings. Someone throws some birdseed on the ground and they rush to the spot. The air is ripe with the smell of dirt and pigeon mess. One man shoots large, iridescent bubbles from a machine gun.
Further ahead is the entrance to Temple or Cathedral Cave. A giant, gleaming statue of a Murugan, the Hindu god of war, guards the base of a flight of 272 stairs that rises sharply and disappears into the cave. At the base, a woman stops a group of girls dressed in shorts. “No short pants in the temple!” she shouts and shows them some gauzy sarongs to cover their naked legs. Macaque monkeys run up and down the ledges, jumping to and from nearby branches, nibbling food they’ve found or stolen from unsuspecting tourists.
At Temple cave entrance, little kiosks sell miniature brass gods, incense sticks, toys, smartphone covers, and flash drives. A girl stands against the wall. Her eyes are downcast. She holds her shawl open like a hammock for charitable donations. The scent of stale food and wet gravel lingers within. Water dribbles from the roof. In the cave’s many nooks and crannies, there are statues of gods and goddesses illuminated by lurid light.
Next, Cave Villa: an art and reptile gallery. Dusty peacocks roam freely. The air smells of damp earth and peacock droppings. Sculpted paintings with pithy sayings hang on the irregular cave walls:
“There are two looks in the dyed eyes of this (fair) one; one causes pain and the other is the cure thereof.”
“The pipe is sweet, the lute is sweet,” say those who have not heard the prattle of their own children.”
In the depths of the earth, creatures sleep in glass cases, drowsy from the cave’s humidity. Slow moving albino snakes, a bumpy-skinned alligator, turtles, fish, rabbits. “Would you like to take a picture with a snake?” someone asks. “No thank you,” I reply. It starts to feel creepy and claustrophobic so we exit for the sunshine.
Next, we head to another part of the temple complex where a stage has been carved out of the rock. A dancer sits backstage, waiting for her next performance. She looks tired. We sit on red plastic stools. Two glossy peacocks strut around, oblivious to the cameras and smartphones recording their every move.
Three dancers begin. The music sounds like a mashup of Indian and American Western music. Then the diva arrives: red mohawk, sculpted eyebrows, dramatic eye makeup. A fake-gold choker drips from his slim neck. A russet bodysuit clings to his lithe form, the armpits already stained with sweat. Around his waist, a fabulous tail of glossy peacock feathers. His eyes dance; his smile is electric; his movements are fluid. The tourists seem more interested in documenting the peacocks’ languid movements.
When we return to the train station, I ask the ticket seller which platform heads back to the city center. He points to a piece of paper desultorily. We descend the stairs to the correct platform and get into the train. As we wait for it to depart, two women quickly sweep the carriage’s already spotless floor. The air conditioning dries the sweat from our backs and faces. The sweepers leave and we glide back to the modern city.
Have you ever been to Batu Caves? Tell me about it below!
Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh