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Thaipusam is the most spectacular Hindu festival in Malaysia, marking the day when Lord Shiva’s son, Muruga, was given command of the celestial forces to vanquish three Asura demons. A wild orgy of body piercings – cheeks, tongues and lips are all skewered, often multiple times -- this fascinating festival can be a mind-spinning sight for a first-timer.

Devotees take approximately 48 days to prepare for the festival, which takes place mid-January to mid-February, when the moon is full in the 10th Tamil month of the Thai calendar. They undertake special diets and cleansing routines, sleep on the floor and practice regular prayer.

Thaipusam takes place deep in the Batu Caves. Thousands of people flock here to give thanks to Muruga, the Hindu god of war. Inside, you will find monkeys scampering and bounding up the 272 steps into Temple Cave, the vast main cavern that houses a golden statue of Muruga. The caves were “officially” discovered some 120 years ago by American naturalist William Hornaday.

Pride of place in the festival is Lord Muruga's silver chariot, which makes its way from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown to the caves. Carrying statuettes of Lord Muruga, as well as consorts Valli and Teivayanni, the chariot tips the scales at 350kg of silver – a jaw-dropping display of wealth when it was first unveiled in 1893.

During Thaipusam, devotees perform a dance to Muruga known as kavadi attam. The dance helps the devotees appeal to Muruga for divine assistance or give thanks for his help. But it is not just dancing that happens here.

The greatest sight is the kavadi carriers, the devotees who subject themselves to seemingly masochistic acts as fulfilment for answered prayers. Many of the faithful carry offerings of milk in paal kudam (milk pots) often connected to their skin by hooks. Even more striking are the vel kavadi – great cages of spikes that pierce the skin of the carrier and are decorated with peacock feathers, pictures of deities and flowers. Some penitents go as far as piercing their tongues and cheeks with hooks, skewers and tridents. While it looks excruciating, a trance-like state stops participants from feeling pain; later the wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring.

Interested in taking part in the pierced proceedings? Only the truly faithful should attempt the ritual – insufficiently prepared devotees keep doctors especially busy over the festival period with skin lacerations. Make sure to take plenty of water with you, as the heat can be just as overwhelming as the sights.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Malaysia's Thaipusam festival’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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