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May 29, 2017

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Extreme devotion on display as Malaysia marks Thaipusam

GEORGETOWN, Malaysia -- Malaysian Hindu devotee Karthi Gan grimaces while tapping his feet to the beat of ritual drums as two men plunge dozens of sharp hooks into his chest and back.

The painful ritual is Karthi's way of giving thanks to the Hindu deity Muruga as part of the country's colorful annual Thaipusam festival, one of the world's most extreme displays of religious devotion.

Celebrated also in India and other areas with significant Tamil communities, the three-day festival that kicked off Thursday is marked with particular zest among Malaysian Indians.

Hordes of Hindus flock to temples across the country with offerings, many showing their fervor via extensive piercing or by bearing the elaborately decorated burdens called "kavadi" that are carried to religious sites.

Giving Thanks

"I got what I asked from Lord Muruga," said Karthi, a 31-year-old engineer, who prayed during last year's festival for "a good life."

"I got a new-born baby. I got a new home," he said late Thursday night, when he and thousands of others began the slow and painful process of affixing their kavadi in the northern state of Penang.

His styrofoam kavadi structure — a frame attached to his hips and crowned by a peacock-eye design — was relatively light.

The piercing, however, had him feeling "a little nervous" ahead of the ritual just outside a Hindu temple, but he soon joined dozens of others who submitted to the ordeal.

Installing the kavadi, however, is merely the beginning.

In Penang, devotees then paraded barefoot for hours Friday through the streets of the state capital Georgetown, carrying kavadi that can weigh as much as 100 kilograms.

Participants swayed trance-like to drumbeats that had throbbed since Thursday.

Cheered on by friends and family who danced and chanted, the processions culminated in an 800-step climb to a hilltop temple for prayers.

Thaipusam commemorates the day when, according to Hindu mythology, the goddess Pavarthi gave her son Lord Muruga a lance to slay evil demons.

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