Hindu devotees celebrate Thaipusam with piercings, procession


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.

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)