The Hindu festival Thaipusam is held every year at the Batu Caves just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It marks the occasion when the goddess Parvati gave Lord Murugan (the Tamil god of war) the golden spear (' vel') that he used to slay the evil demon Soorapadman.
On the eve of the festival, which this year falls on February 3, an entourage of priests, devotees, musicians, and dancers walk through the night to the caves. Penitents make offerings and repay spiritual debts to Murugan by carrying or wearing the vel kavadi (burdens), which can be anything from jugs of milk to heavy, extravagant altars hooked into the skin and decorated with peacock feathers.
Devotees have their heads shaved and pray while cleansing themselves with river water and smashing coconuts to symbolize the destruction of one's ego. The air is thick with incense. Encouraged by the swirling beat of drums, some offer prayers before entering a trance and attaching the kavadi to the skin of their chest or back with steel hooks. Others pierce their cheeks and tongues with vel—skewers—to remind themselves of their god and to stop themselves from speaking. Though these devices pierce the skin, no blood is spilled.
Bearing their kavadis, surrounded by musicians, friends and relatives crying "Vel! Vel! Vel!" the devotees climb past the statue of Lord Murugan on the 272 steps to the caves. Once inside at the shrine, swamis (Hindu priests) release the kavadis and their vows are fulfilled. These photos, from the 2011festivities, show what all that looks like.
See more photos by Dominic Blewett on his website.