Hindu devotees celebrate Thaipusam with piercings, procession

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KUALA LUMPUR/SINGAPORE, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Men carrying decorated structures called "kavadi" dance in circles to the beat of drums, as others with their cheeks pierced with skewers pull chariots using cords attached to hooks on their backs during a grand procession.

Hindu devotees in India and across the world on Thursday marked Thaipusam, a religious celebration dedicated to the deity Lord Murugan.

The annual festival, which has become a major cultural highlight, takes place on a grand scale in Southeast Asia at the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Devasthanam Temple at Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

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Thaipusam Hindu Festival -- a religious celebration
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Thaipusam Hindu Festival -- a religious celebration

Devotees gather at a shrine in Batu Caves during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

A Hindu devotee carries a Kavadi as he takes part in a procession during Thaipusam at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

Devotees receive blessings in Batu Caves during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

Devotees leave a temple in their kavadis during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Singapore February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Devotees climb the steps to Batu Caves during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

A devotee carries a pair of clogs fashioned from nails during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Singapore February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Devotees throw confetti as they reach the end of the procession during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Singapore February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Hindu devotees carry milk pots on their heads as they gather at the shrine in Batu Caves temple during Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 9, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

Hindu devotees attend a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, seeking the blessings of god Murugan during the Thaipusam Hindu festival on Feb 9 2017. The Malaysian Thaipusam is the biggest festival of its kind in the world, with more than 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists attending. It is a celebration honoring the god Murugan, during which the pilgrims often perform acts of self sacrifice.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hindu devotees attend a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, seeking the blessings of god Murugan during the Thaipusam Hindu festival on Feb 9 2017. The Malaysian Thaipusam is the biggest festival of its kind in the world, with more than 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists attending. It is a celebration honoring the god Murugan, during which the pilgrims often perform acts of self sacrifice.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hindu devotees attend a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, seeking the blessings of god Murugan during the Thaipusam Hindu festival on Feb 9 2017. The Malaysian Thaipusam is the biggest festival of its kind in the world, with more than 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists attending. It is a celebration honoring the god Murugan, during which the pilgrims often perform acts of self sacrifice.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hindu devotees attend a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, seeking the blessings of god Murugan during the Thaipusam Hindu festival on Feb 9 2017. The Malaysian Thaipusam is the biggest festival of its kind in the world, with more than 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists attending. It is a celebration honoring the god Murugan, during which the pilgrims often perform acts of self sacrifice.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hindu devotees attend a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, seeking the blessings of god Murugan during the Thaipusam Hindu festival on Feb 9 2017. The Malaysian Thaipusam is the biggest festival of its kind in the world, with more than 1.5 million pilgrims and tourists attending. It is a celebration honoring the god Murugan, during which the pilgrims often perform acts of self sacrifice.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Malaysian Hindu devotees walk up the 272 stairs to the Batu Caves temple during the Thaipusam festival celebrations in Kuala Lumpur on February 9, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Malaysia take part in the colorful Thaipusam festival and show their devotion to the Lord Murugan by piercing their bodies with tridents, hooks and skewers.

(MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

A Malaysian Hindu devotee carries a Kavadi as he make his way towards the Batu Caves temple to make offerings during the Thaipusam Festival on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur before sunrise on February 08, 2017.

(Photo by Mohd Daud/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A Malaysian Hindu devotee with his back adorned with tattoos offers prayers before walking towards the Batu caves temple during the Thaipusam festival celebrations in Kuala Lumpur on February 9, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Malaysia take part in the colorful Thaipusam festival and show their devotion to the Lord Murugan by piercing their bodies with tridents, hooks and skewers.

(MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

A young Malaysian Hindu devotee looks on as she stands in a queue to offer prayers at the Batu caves temple during the Thaipusam festival celebrations in Kuala Lumpur on February 9, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Malaysia take part in the colorful Thaipusam festival and show their devotion to the Lord Murugan by piercing their bodies with tridents, hooks and skewers.

(MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

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Similar to Lent and the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand, Thaipusam represents a time of self-sacrifice and penance, as gratitude for boons fulfilled.

In addition to shaving their heads and going on a strict vegetarian diet before the festival, devotees carry symbolic burdens called "kavadi," which can range from clay pots of milk to two-meter-high bowed metal frames decorated with peacock feathers and small statues of deities.

"This is my ninth time. The first time, I did this because I had a health problem," said devotee Sivanyana Bashkaran, who winced as he had hooks placed on his back.

"So I came here, and I prayed to him (Lord Murugan) to cure my illness, saying that I would come back every year and do this for him. Then all my problems ended, and so I started to do it."

The exact date of Thaipusam changes each year in the Gregorian calendar, as it is based on the full moon day in the month of Thai in the Hindu calendar.

(Reporting by Ebrahim Harris, Writing by Karishma Singh; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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