BATU CAVES, Malaysia — In a mass of pierced bodies and peacock feathers, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians trekked uphill into Malaysia's most sacred Hindu cave Monday for a bedazzling pilgrimage of penance and piety.
Some of the devotees in the annual Thaipusam festival paid homage to their deity Lord Muruga by lancing their backs with steel hooks and sliding skewers through their cheeks for the ascent to the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur.
Women and children carried brass urns filled with milk on their heads to symbolize purity, chanting "Vel, vel, Muruga" — the Tamil phrase for "the spear of Muruga" — to the thunderous beat of drums.
"This is how we renew our faith," said Shantini Navaratnam, a 32-year-old schoolteacher whose father died in a road accident last November. "This is the first time in two months that I feel completely at peace."
The festival was brought to this Southeast Asian country during the British colonial era by 19th century immigrants from southern India. The ritual, now banned in India, is celebrated in cities throughout Malaysia, as well as in Singapore and Sri Lanka.
Many of the estimated 1 million celebrants at the Batu Caves had meditated and fasted for several days.
On the morning of Thaipusam, the most ardent participants placed heavy "kavadi" — wooden or metal arches — on their shoulders, lavishly decorated with flowers, peacock feathers and huge pictures of Hindu deities.
Most people carrying kavadi had several parts of their bodies pierced, considered an act of faith. Some covered themselves with hundreds of needle-sized rods.
Milk was poured on their pin-cushioned, reddened flesh. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus.
Participants swooned and swayed ferociously as they walked to the foot of the hill and climbed 272 steps to a temple inside a limestone cavern the size of a soccer field. There, the arches were taken off and the rods and needles withdrawn by priests and holy men.
Medical experts have been confounded by the ritual — adherents say they feel no pain and do not bleed because of their faith.
"Many people cannot understand," said technician Suresh Kalimuthu, 23, who came to support a friend carrying the kavadi. "But really, it's not so terrible. It's very meaningful, very beautiful."
Other devotees clutched coconuts, which they handed to priests who smashed them against the cave walls to symbolize humility and cleansing.
In Malaysia, Thaipusam is also a paean of unity for ethnic Indians, who make up only 8 percent of the country's 23 million people.