High above Kuala Lumpur, under the light of the full moon, the most devoted Malaysian Hindus perform shocking acts of penance for Thaipusam, a practice which isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Each year, nearly a million Hindus make the 15km (9mi) pilgrimage between two of the city’s most beautiful temples. The most devoted, perform gruesome acts of masochism as they travel by foot from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple, in the Batu Caves.
This involves piercing their skin, tongues and cheeks with hundreds of hooks and Vel skewers, an ancient Tamil spear. They do this to commemorate the day, in Hindu lore, when the god Murugan received a lance to vanquish three demons.
Many devotees begin paying penance a few days before the actual festival, with the carrying of the kavadi – a decorated structure bearing the image of several deities including Lord Murugan – on their shoulders and offerings of small milk pots, called pal kodum, hanging from their bodies. In more extreme cases devotees are suspended in mid-air by their hooks, or pulled along by fellow revellers. It is believed their entranced state helps them to endure hours of pain. Afterwards their wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.
The festival culminates in the shadow of an enormous golden statue of Murugan, who stands at the foot of the stairway leading to the caves. Pilgrims climb the 272 steps to pray in the temple, leave offerings and take in the views, watched closely by curious monkeys perched on the limestone outcrops.
Thaipusam falls during the full moon of the 10th month in the Hindu calendar, and each year around 10,000 spectators from around the world join religious revellers in celebration. While only a small number will perform eye-watering acts of courage, it is common for men and some women to completely shave their heads. Hindus also gather at the Balathandayuthapani Temple or Waterfall Hill Temple on Penang, to celebrate.
February is full of bizarre and surprising festivals, from Scotland’s Viking celebrations to Bolivia’s annual devil dance. It seems cultures around the world need a healthy dose of hedonism to keep their spirits up during the dark and dreary winter months.