Malaysian Hindus defy virus fears for Thaipusam

This photo taken on 7 February, 2020 shows Hindu devotees carrying a "kavadi" (wooden frame) as they make their way towards the Batu Caves temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. (AFP Photo)

Hindus gathered in temples across Malaysia on Saturday to celebrate the annual Thaipusam festival, with many piercing their bodies with hooks and skewers, despite concerns about the deadly novel coronavirus outbreak.

Massive crowds descended on the Batu Caves temple complex on the outskirts of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to participate in the event, where Hindus showcased their devotion to the deity, Lord Murugan.

Worshippers walked barefoot up 272 steps to reach the temple – an important religious site for Tamil Hindus – armed with gifts including milk pots which are eventually smashed as offerings. 

Many displayed their fervour by carrying heavy ornate metal structures called "kavadis", affixed to their bodies with sharp metal spikes that are hammered into the skin.

Some devotees appeared to be in a state of trance as they carried the kavadis, which can weigh as much as 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds).

Others pierced their faces with tridents or hung multiple hooks and chains from their bodies in an act of penance.

The crowd at the Batu Caves looked as big as in previous years despite worries about the new virus, and only a handful were wearing protective masks. 

Wuhan virus

The pathogen has killed hundreds and infected tens of thousands in China and is spreading around the world. Malaysia has so far reported 16 cases, mostly in visiting Chinese nationals. 

"We are quite worried about the Wuhan virus," conceded devotee Navindran Arumugam, referring to the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak. 

But he added he was not too concerned about picking up the illness at such a "holy place".

Prior to Thaipusam, devotees will typically hold daily prayer sessions, abstain from sex and stick to a strict vegetarian diet for weeks.

Most of Malaysia's roughly 32 million people are Muslim, but the country also has around two million ethnic Indians.

Most are descendants of labourers brought from ethnic Tamil areas of southern India by Malaysia's former British colonial masters.

Lord Murugan is particularly revered in southern India and among ethnic Tamil communities in Southeast Asia. - AFP