Malaysian Indians pierced themselves with hooks and skewers Saturday as they celebrated a Hindu festival hailed as a show of religious freedom after a spate of attacks on places of worship.

Huge crowds of devotees converged on the Batu Caves temple, a spectacular limestone cavern on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur that is expected to draw some 1.5 million people over the annual three-day Thaipusam festival.

Some devotees carried heavy ornate structures called kavadis as they walked up 272 steps to the temple, while hundreds of others had their tongues, cheeks, chests and backs pierced with hooks and skewers.

While some worshippers walked quietly and recited prayers, others went into a religious trance, chanting and whirling as supporters held them back by ropes tied onto the hooks placed in long rows down their backs.

“We are here to fulfil our vows and to pray for peace for our country,” K. Thana, a female devotee who carried a milk-pot offering, told AFP as she walked barefoot up to the temple with her mother.

“I have been doing this for more than five years and for this year, I don’t think we are disturbed by the incidents that happened recently,” said the 38-year-old bank officer, clad in a yellow costume symbolising purification.

Places of worship in Malaysia have been pelted with Molotov cocktails, stones, paint and severed pig heads since a December court ruling that allowed non-Muslims to use the word “Allah” as a translation for “God”.

Nineteen people have so far been arrested for their roles in the attacks on churches, mosques and Muslim prayer halls, and three of those were charged in court on Friday.

The incidents did not deter devotees and tourists from attending the Thaipusam festival, which is also celebrated in several other locations in mainly Muslim Malaysia.

About one in fourteen of Malaysia’s 28 million population are ethnic Indians — mostly Hindus but also Christians and Sikhs.

“This is my first time at Thaipusam festival. This is a very colourful event that I have never experienced before,” said Uberto Scotto, an Italian expatriate engineer.

“This is an example of tolerance among Malaysians,” he told AFP.

Lisa Wong, a Malaysian Buddhist and mother of two, said she took her children every year to join her Hindu friends at the festival.

“I like this spirit and I want my children to understand the culture of different races in this country,” said Wong, who wore a dot of holy red powder on her forehead.

Thaipusam commemorates the day when, according to Hindu mythology, Goddess Pavarthi gave her son Lord Muruga an invincible lance with which he destroyed evil demons. — AFP