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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - Hundreds of thousands of Malaysian Hindus celebrated the festival of Thaipusam on Sunday, seeking divine blessings with offerings ranging from piercing their bodies with hooks and spears to the more mundane ones of flowers and milk.
Chanting and dancing devotees rubbed shoulders with tourists in offering prayers to Lord Murugan at Batu Caves, a prominent Hindu site near the Malaysian capital, while police and first aid workers kept an eye on the festivities.
Thaipusam came to Malaysia through immigrant Indians, who migrated to the Southeast Asian country in the late nineteenth century, mostly to work on rubber plantations.
On Sunday, men and women cleansed themselves by shaving their heads and taking a dip in a nearby river, and smeared their bare heads with sandalwood and ash before proceeding in a broad line to the temple in the caves.
Camera-toting tourists mingled with the crowd for a glimpse of the Hindu tradition that has all but disappeared from India.
"I'm just amazed, it is really unique the music, the parade ... I have never seen anything like this in my country," said 21-year old Hye Eun, a Korean tourist.
Men with ash-smeared torsos and hooks hung with lemons, oranges or apples digging into the skin on their backs were dancing in tradition Indian costumes under what locals said was a trance induced by prayer and incense.
Other devotees had spears piercing their cheeks and tongues, while some carried floats decorated with peacock feathers and gold tassels secured around their waists, all the while chanting Hindu mantras.
The devotees' final destination was the temple at the top of the hill that houses Batu Caves, where they took off the hooks and spears after praying to the Hindu god.
Thaipusam, a public holiday in several Malaysian states, was first practiced in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where most of Malaysia's ethnic Indians can trace their origin.
The festival is not widely celebrated in mostly-Hindu India anymore, but is alive in Malaysia where locals say they have been celebrating it for generations.
Ethnic Indians form nearly 7 percent of Malaysia's 27 million strong population.
Reporting by Varsha Tickoo; Editingh by David Fox