January 25, 2016

Vows and body piercings abound as Hindus celebrate Thaipusam in Malaysia

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A Hindu devotee is carrying a bowl of milk as an offering during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu.

A Hindu devotee is carrying a bowl of milk as an offering during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu.

Hindu devotees and tourists leave traces while walking inside of the Batu Caves temple complex in this long exposure image taken during Thaipusam Hindu festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hindu devotees and tourists leave traces while walking inside of the Batu Caves temple complex in this long-exposure image taken during the Thaipusam Hindu festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

KUALA LUMPUR,  Malaysia (RNS) The Batu Caves temple complex, built at the heart of a great limestone cavern cut in a hill, is usually a quiet place where tourists and worshippers are outnumbered by the monkeys and birds that seem to rule over the area.

But on Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 23 and 24), more than 1 million visitors — both devotees from Malaysia’s large Tamil community and tourists — congregated at the Batu Caves for the Thaipusam festival, one of the country’s biggest Hindu celebrations. The annual festival is held during the month of Thai –- the fifth month in the Tamil calendar — in honor of Lord Murugan, Lord Shiva’s son and adviser, whose shrine lies in the middle of the cave. In Hindu mythology, Murugan has defeated the demon army in order to protect humanity, and Thaipusam celebrates this victory.

A Hindu devotee is carrying a bowl of milk as an offering during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu.

A Hindu devotee carries a bowl of milk as an offering during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

The pilgrims taking part in the festival walk in a procession to Murugan’s temple, often performing acts of self-sacrifice during their journey. They carry heavy mobile shrines known as kavadis and pierce their skin with silver skewers or hooks, from which fruits and small bowls of milk are hung as offerings. Pilgrims believe that Murugan will answer their prayers in response to these physical burdens. Some simply carry milk-filled pots, offering them to the god as a sign of gratitude.

Suguna, far left, fulfills her Thaipusam pilgrimage by climbing the stairs leading to Murugan's shrine on her knees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. She takes this journey together with her husband and two children. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Suguna, far left, fulfills her Thaipusam pilgrimage by climbing the stairs leading to Murugan’s shrine on her knees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. She takes this journey together with her husband and two children. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A woman’s vow

When a woman who goes by the name of Suguna discovered that her 3-year-old son suffered from asthma, she turned to Murugan, begging for her child’s health. The woman, who declined to give her last name, vowed to take a pilgrimage crawling on her knees every year for Thaipusam, if Murugan granted her wish. Helped by her husband and together with her two children, Suguna climbed on her knees the 272 steep stairs of Batu Caves temple, bringing her gratitude to the god who helped her. The woman’s family encouraged and helped her on each step of the journey.

They chant “Vel-Vel,” a mantra invoking the name of the holy weapon of Murugan with which he defeated the demon army. At the end, Suguna feels that her sacrifice will bring good health and blessings to her whole family.

Suguna, center, is accompanied and encouraged by her family during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Suguna, center, is accompanied and encouraged by her family during her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Daanish is being blessed by a Hindu priest before beginning his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Daanish is being blessed by a Hindu priest before beginning his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A heavy burden

Daanish Jegatheswaran is part of a group whose members have been building and carrying kavadis, one of the toughest types of self-mortification, for the last 30 years. Often having their tongue and cheeks pierced by skewers, the worshippers carry metal structures decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and statues of Murugan and other gods.

A few days before Thaipusam, Jegatheswaran, his father and their friends design and build the kavadis. This was the fifth year that Jegatheswaran, 21, carried a kavadi — this year it weighed around 176 pounds.

Daanish is dancing in a trance while carrying his Kavadi during his Thaipusam pilgrimage, while his family and friends protect him and chant, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Daanish is dancing in a trance while carrying his kavadi during his Thaipusam pilgrimage while his family and friends protect him and chant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

For the hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees honoring Murugan, this festival is thought to bring peace, good health and blessings. For the crowds of tourists drawn by the colorful festival every year, Thaipusam is an opportunity to understand the concept of “mind over matter.”

A Hindu devotee is guided by a family member while being in a trance during his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu devotee is guided by a family member while being in a trance during his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu devotee is carrying a Kavadi and hooks which pierce his skin during his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu devotee is carrying a kavadi and hooks that pierce his skin during his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hooks are being pierced into a Hindu devotee's skin before the beginning of his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hooks are being pierced into a Hindu devotee’s skin before the beginning of his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hindu devotees climb the stairs leading to Lord Murugan's shrine in Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, to give offerings during the yearly Thaipusam Hindu festival. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hindu devotees climb the stairs leading to Lord Murugan’s shrine in Batu Caves to give offerings during the yearly Thaipusam Hindu festival. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hindu devotees with their cheeks pierced by skewers carry bowls of milk as offerings during their Thaipusam pilgrimagein Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Hindu devotees with their cheeks pierced by skewers carry bowls of milk as offerings during their Thaipusam pilgrimage near Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Traditional music groups accompany and guide the families in chanting for their loved ones during the Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

Traditional music groups accompany and guide the families in chanting for their loved ones during the Thaipusam festival on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu priest blesses the devotees and their Kavadis before beginning their Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu priest blesses the devotees and their kavadis before they begin their Thaipusam pilgrimage on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A young Hindu devotee is having her head shaved for cleansing before beginning her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A young Hindu devotee is having her head shaved for cleansing before beginning her Thaipusam pilgrimage in Malaysia on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu devotee is having the skewer that pierced his cheeks removed after completing his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

A Hindu devotee is having the skewer that pierced his cheeks removed after completing his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

(Alexandra Radu is a photojournalist based in Kuala Lumpur)