A 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur offered a perfect opportunity to visit the famous Batu Caves, a half-hour from city centre by commuter train. For tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists the main attraction is a profusion of flamboyant shrines and statues, particularly those inside the vast Temple (or Cathedral) Cave, 272 steps above the imposing guardian statue. Near the top, a gate on a side-path caught my eye, its sign welcoming passers-by to a “Dark Cave”. Checking that out after visiting the main feature turned out to be the best decision of my day.
Known only to indigenous hunters before 1878, the great limestone caves at Batu came to the attention of a wealthy Hindu merchant who organized the local Tamil community to build a temple inside the largest cave. Since 1891 the devout have added more shrines in that Temple Cave, transformed three smaller caverns into shrines and galleries and, just fifteen years ago, dedicated the imposing 43 metre (140 foot) statue of the Lord Muruga. Arguably the Batu Caves have become the most important Hindu pilgrimage site in Southeast Asia, especially during the annual festival of Thaipusam early each year.
The Temple Cave is indeed spectacular: a vast, lofty cavern dwarfing the structure and people inside. Nonetheless, a Hindu professor from a European university who struck up a conversation voiced my own thoughts – that the humbling magnificence of 400 million years of nature’s work felt somehow diminished by puny humans imposing gaudy statues, incense, and the cacophonous sounds of bells, horns and flutes. But that said, my cultural bias is unfair to my Hindu brothers and sisters. If the place inspires sincere devotees to be better people in a stronger community, then who am I to judge.
Happily, the vast Dark Cave is now preserved in its natural state after years of workers mining the thick layer of bat guano for fertilizer, and in some cases defacing walls near the entrance. A few ringgits bought a ticket for an hour-long visit led by a naturalist from the NGO managing the cave. Equipped with hardhats and flashlights we entered a magical and mysterious place, dark and yet full of life. Bats, of course – twenty-one species of them – but a profusion of other creatures, some unique. One species of trapdoor spider is found nowhere else in the world and, although I’m squeamish about snakes, I did (sort of) hope to catch a glimpse of the elusive subspecies of cave racer which climbs the rock face to hide in a crevice in the wall, or even in the ceiling 30 metres above. When a bat comes within range, the snake lunges out to catch, crush and swallow it while keeping the rest of its body wedged in the crevice. I can say with some authority that snakes in the ceiling are a particularly creepy thought when a guide invites everyone to turn off their lights for a few moments to experience the sensation of absolute darkness. And yet not silent. There is an almost imperceptible murmur of diverse creatures going about their daily lives in their sunless home.
With lights back on we walked further in, admiring the petrified poetry of water seeping and dripping for thousands of years creating sculptures of solid rock. Stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites rising from the floor, sometimes meeting to form solid pillars. MInerals in the dampness on the walls gradually hardening into sensuously fluid shapes; a symphony in stone.
A half-kilometre into the cave we reached what was, for me at least, the most moving moment, as a haunting, misty light from the late-afternoon sun filtered in through vegetation covering a natural chimney rising at least 20 metres above. Then, after savouring the peaceful moment, it was time to head back the way we had come, leaving much more of the deeper cave and its branches unexplored, returning to daylight not long before sunset.
While I enjoy visiting human attempts at grandeur, I often find that they pale against what Mother Nature spends aeons doing in her own quiet way. At Batu I think she gets a bit of wry revenge too. Cheeky little macaque monkeys can snatch a bag or knock food out of a hand in an instant, and then sit smugly a safe distance away, looking disdainful as they examine their loot. In the few short minutes I spent watching the game, Mother Nature’s team was ahead of the Humans by a score of 2-0. Perhaps something to ponder as we approach another year with not all humans acting as team players in the contest against a simple, brainless, microscopic coronavirus.
1. Reportedly the Dark Cave has since been closed to the public until further notice. The reason is not clear.
2. If you have trouble remembering geological terms you might appreciate a lesson my mother taught me many years ago. Stalagmites and stalactites are like ants in the pants – when the mites climb up, the tights come down!