MALAYSIA - Thaipusam - a Tamil Hindu festival celebrated annually on the periphery of Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is many things :

Spectacular, raucous, gaudy, intoxicating and definitely not for the faint of heart.   

Each year, scores devotees at the festival - which celebrates the victory of the god Murugan over a demon - fulfill vows of personal sacrifice, hoping the deity will grant their prayers : recovery of sick relatives, for example, or expiation of a past misdeed.

Each petitioner must carry a kavadi, or burden, trekking to a temple built inside the huge, limestone Batu Caves complex about eight miles [ 12 kilometers ] outside the Malaysian capital.

Kavadis can range from a simple pot of milk to elaborate steel-and-wood mobile shrines that can weigh more than a hundred pounds [ 45 kilograms ].

Many also pierce their flesh with hooks and skewers, a practice banned in India, but still permitted in Malaysia.

The sight of scores of pierced pilgrims climbing the 250-odd steps leading up to the temple amid delirious uproar of chanting, drumming and blaring music draws hundreds of thousands of worshippers and spectators every year.

This year, the three-day festival will culminate on Jan-25, when devotees and their supporting family members and friends make the pilgrimage.

Some of the kavadi carriers - who have spent weeks fasting and abstaining from sex in preparation -appeared to have worked themselves in a semi-fugue state, appearing not to feel pain from their piercings.

Despite the intense devotion and sometimes chaotic atmosphere, the mood is more like a street party than a religious ceremony.

Indeed, for some of the devotees, presumably those who have made the pilgrimage many times, it all seems surprisingly mundane.

The last time I attended, one man carrying a towering kavadi anchored to the skin of his back by several dozen huge steel hooks raised a hand as I passed, flashing a grin and calling out, '' Where you from, mate?" [Simon Elegant] 


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