THAIPUSAM is an annual Hindu festival which draws the largest gathering in multi-racial Malaysia - nearly a million people in 2000.
In Kuala Lumpur, the festival is celebrated on a mammoth scale at the Batu Caves temple on the outskirts of the city. It began in 1892, started by early Tamils who migrated to colonial Malaya.
Thaipusam falls on a full moon day in the auspicious 10th Tamil month of Thai when the constellation of Pusam, the star of well-being, rises over the eastern horizon.
Several hundred devotees spear their cheeks with long, shiny steel rods - often a metre long - and pierce their chests and backs with small, hook-like needles in penance.
Tourists watch in awe as metal pierces the skin with hardly any bleeding and, apparently, no pain as the devotee stands in a trance in the dawn light after weeks of rigorous abstinence.
Over the years, curious British, American and Australian medical experts have come to observe and speculate. Some think the white ash smeared on the body, the juice squeezed from the yellow lime fruit or the milk poured on the pierced areas may help to numb the skin. But most admit they have no answer.
The devotees say it is faith.
"The belief in Lord Murugan is what prevents the pain and the bleeding,"
There are plenty stories about what Thaipusam is about. Among the most popular is that it commemorates the day Lord Siva's consort, the powerful goddess Parvathi, gives her son, Murugan, the vel (lance) to vanquish three demons and their large army which were plaguing the world.
Murugan Statue at Batu Caves