BATU CAVES (AFP) - More than a million Hindus in Malaysia celebrated the colourful Thaipusam festival on Sunday (Jan 24), thronging temples to display their devotion with wince-inducing body piercing and offerings to the deity Murugan.
Hundreds of thousands converged on the Batu Caves - an important religious site for Tamil Hindus on Kuala Lumpur's outskirts - with many walking up to 10 hours to the site, capped by a final 272-step climb to its limestone hilltop shrine.
Many show their fervour through mind-over-matter feats of body piercing including long skewers stuck through their flesh in a form of penance, or by bearing the elaborately decorated home-made frames called "kavadi".
Kavadi can weigh as much as 100kg and are typically affixed to a person's body using sharp metal spikes dug into the skin.
Countless other yellow-robed devotees carried offerings of milk pots or coconuts. The coconuts are eventually smashed.
Devi Vijarengam, who arrived at the caves carrying a pot of milk and accompanied by her husband, said they had been married six years and would ask Murugan to bless them with a child.
"We did our prayers today and we hope next year we will have a baby and bring him here," she said.
Thaipusam officially commemorates the day when, according to Hindu mythology, the goddess Pavarthi gave her son Lord Murugan a lance to slay evil demons.
Prior to Thaipusam, devotees will typically hold daily prayer sessions, abstain from sex and stick to a strict vegetarian diet for weeks.
Many endured sweltering heat to follow the 15-kilometre procession of a silver chariot from a temple in central Kuala Lumpur to the caves.
Most of Malaysia's roughly 29 million people are Muslim, but the country also has more than two million ethnic Indians.
Most are descendants of labourers brought from ethnic Tamil areas of southern India by Malaysia's former British colonial masters.
Thaipusam is also celebrated in India and Singapore and other areas with large Hindu Tamil communities, but is marked with particular zest in multi-cultural Malaysia.
While some worshippers walked quietly and recited prayers, others went into trances, chanting and whirling as supporters held them back by ropes tied onto hooks pierced in rows down their backs.
"You get a sense of satisfaction, even if it is only once a year and just seeing the way people give their thanks. Coming here and praying gives you that inner peace," said Prabakaran, a devotee who goes by only one name and who shaved his head as a form of devotion.