Lilly swiftly did the math. If her mother (Aida) first went to Batu Caves when she was eight and she revisits the Caves at 41, then her first visit was made 33 years ago.
Lilly’s good at Math. More than good. She was voted Class Mathematician in 2nd Grade. Now in 3rd Grade she’s top in her class in the subject.
A gymnastics devotee, she’s made it to the Junior Olympic Team program in New Hampshire, USA. Lilly, 9, and Nora, 7, are both budding pianists. Dainty little Nora is an equestrienne who delights in decking herself out in jodhpurs, boots, garters, show shirt, blazer, show gloves and helmet – the whole works – for horse shows.
But I digress, which I do too easily when dwelling on the subject of my grandkids who live abroad and don’t visit frequently enough.
During their last vacation here, we took the girls and their parents to Batu Caves, a massive limestone hill located about eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As we approached the Caves, Lilly was the first to spot the towering golden statue that loomed progressively more magnificent as we neared it. I told the girls that was the world’s tallest structure of Lord Murugan, one of the holiest of the Hindu deities – 140 feet tall and made of 250 tons of steel bars, 1,550 cubic meters of concrete and 300 liters of gold paint. The numbers impressed our little mathematician. Awesome! she said.
We parked the car and headed towards Lord Murugan who stood guard at the base of a very steep 272-step staircase that led to the Caves. Samad and I felt intimidated by it but, refusing to be outdone, we started our climb, maintaining a more sedate pace than Aida and her family and the other tourists who had come from many parts of the world. Resting points along the way provided welcome relief and beautiful views of the city.
Nora squealed excitedly when she saw the numerous furry monkeys that greeted us on our way up. She was particularly attracted to the babies that clung tenaciously to their mothers as they raced up the staircase railings. The girls happily gave them the many bananas they’d brought and watched amazed as the monkeys deftly peeled the skins before gobbling them up. Pieces of coconut flesh, bread, biscuits and peanuts offered by the other tourists were as swiftly consumed. The poor things are starving! Lilly said.
We’d heard of fierce monkeys who barred their teeth or hissed angrily or harassed unsuspecting tourists who had concealed food in their pockets. I’m reminded of the time Samad and I went mountain trekking in Nepal. We were exploring a serene river-side temple when an angry monkey bit my leg, taking me completely by surprise. I spent a couple of months in agony, not knowing whether I would be infected with the dreaded rabies virus. But back to the Batu Caves monkeys. We found them entirely entertaining and thoroughly enjoyed our encounters with them.
We finally made it to the top and saw magnificent cave formations, the largest and best known being the Temple or Cathedral Cave. Lilly and Nora gazed in wonder at its high vaulted ceiling. It housed ornate Hindu shrines. The way the light filtered through to the cave made it breathtakingly beautiful. The cave is dedicated to Lord Murugan. A much smaller version than his golden self stood in the cave attracting acts of devotion among the many Hindu worshippers.
On the way down we saw the barred entrance of the second main attraction of Batu Caves, the Dark Cave reputed to have two kilometers of strikingly beautiful rock formations and animals found nowhere else.
Thirty-three years ago we probably took little Aida, the girls’ mother, to the Dark Cave. She must have seen something in there that terrified her. She gasped in fear and clutched my hand tightly, urging me to run out of the cave.
The Dark Cave is the home of the world’s rarest spider, the Trapdoor. When they hear about it the girls clamored to see it but we had to disappoint them as special arrangements had to be made before we could enter the Dark Cave.
But more joy awaited the girls after we got down. Pigeons! The square at the base of the caves was teeming with them. And there was such a variety – white ones, grey ones, speckled ones and others with blue-grey feathers.
Armed with bird seed bought from the nearby stalls the girls giggled nervously as they had pigeons eating out of their hands, tip-toeing up to their elbows and even perching on their heads.
A monkey sneaked up to Nora and startled her as it filched a packet of bird seed she was holding. Only a very greedy monkey would do that, she wailed. Not greedy, Nora. Hungry, Lilly assured her.
What did the girls like best about the trip? Lilly gave me a wide smile before saying, the mischievous monkeys! And Nora? The friendly little pigeons!
It was just as well that we didn’t take the girls to visit Batu Caves during the Thaipusam festival (in January or February) when among the thousands of devotees would be those with their tongues, cheeks and bodies impaled with skewers and hooks as they carry out their acts of penitence and devotion to Lord Murugan. A gruesome sight indeed for anybody but something that would strike terror in the girls’ hearts, probably akin to the fear their eight year old mother felt 33 years ago when she ran out of the Dark Cave.