A Malaysian Hindu devotee carries a 'kavadi' towards the Batu Caves temple
Batu Caves - AFP
More than a million Hindus thronged temples throughout Malaysia on Tuesday to celebrate Thaipusam, a colourful annual religious festival in which many display their devotion by piercing their bodies with hooks and skewers.
Celebrations in the capital Kuala Lumpur centred, as they have for 125 years, on the spectacular Batu Caves complex on the city's outskirts, which many Hindus walked up to ten hours to reach in an annual pilgrimage.
Bearing gifts for the deity Murugan, countless yellow-robed devotees carried milk pots or coconuts -- the latter of which are smashed as offerings.
Others took part in the 15-km (nine-mile) procession of a silver chariot from a temple in the city centre to the caves -- an important religious site for Tamil Hindus -- capped by the final 272-step climb to a temple in the limestone outcropping.
Celebrated also in India, Singapore and other areas with significant Hindu Tamil communities, the festival is marked with particular relish in multi-cultural Malaysia.
Many show their fervour by bearing the elaborately decorated frames called "kavadi" that can weigh as much as 100 kg (220 lbs) and are typically affixed to a person's body using sharp metal spikes dug into their flesh in a form of penance.
"It's my first time carrying a kavadi," said Arulvendhan, a 30-year-old teacher, as he prepared to pray before hoisting the burden onto his body.
"I made a vow that I would do this if my father's health got better and if my family had more peace. My dad is much better than before."
About 1.6 million people were expected to visit the Batu Caves on Tuesday, which also draws tens of thousands of tourists eager to witness the carnival-like atmosphere.
Some swayed trance-like to throbbing drumbeats and religious songs as friends and relatives cheered them on. Others danced in deep trance-like states.
Thaipusam 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 stalls sprouted outside the caves where visitors could have their heads shaved bald, another form of thanksgiving.
"I feel lighter of course," Sashi Vadivale, 32, said with a laugh as he rubbed his smooth scalp.
"But seriously, I took a vow for spiritual reasons and I'm feeling satisfied for finishing this ritual."
Dwayne Skjersven, a tourist from Canada, said he was overwhelmed by the spectacle.
"I didn't expect this. It's so colourful and I love that everyone is smiling and it's great to see so many families supporting their relatives," he said.
With a population of 28 million people, Malaysia is Muslim-majority but it also has more than two million ethnic Indians.
Most are Hindus who originally hail from Tamil areas of southern India and who are descendants of labourers brought in under British colonial rule.