Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February). The Tamil are an ethnic group native to Tamil Nadu, India. They can also be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, Australia, Canada, The UK, amongst others. The festival takes place over 3 days and in several different countries.
It celebrates Parvati (the incarnation of the mother of all female gods and wife of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and rejuvenation) giving a spear to the god Murugan (god of war and son of Shiva) to slay a demon named Soorapadam. Soorapadam was granted a partial immortality from Lord Shiva, he was only able to be killed by other deities created by Shiva. Soorapadam was hungry for power and tormented the souls of good people. Shiva created Murugan and Parvati created a spear for him to kill Soorapadam. Soorapadam ran away and turned himself into a tree; Murugan split the tree in half with the spear and one half turned in to a cockerel (rooster) and the other half turned into a peacock (which Murugan is depicted as riding upon).
There are about 1.5 million people that gather in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and prepare for a trek to the Batu Caves (a holy temple to the god Murugan as well as others). The march to the caves is a 15 km walk an 8 hour journey that culminates in the climbing of 272 steps to reach the caves. The walk is done in stifling heat in a massive crowd while many people endure extreme pain.
People take part in Thaipusam for different reasons. Some give thanks for a miracle which have happened in their lives, others ask for a wish to be granted or to rid themselves of their sins by carrying burdens and piercing their bodies. These devoted people have a Priest drive spikes through their cheeks and tongues or insert hooks into their backs and chests on which they hang various fruit or milk pots to add to the discomfort. The hooks in the back are often connected to small rolling alters and ropes that others pull upon as the devotee struggles to move forward. Some people carry Kevadi’s (or burdens); giant cumbersome alters made of steel decorated with vibrant ribbons and peacock feathers, many needles or hooks secure them to the devotee. Others simply carry a pot full of coconut milk upon their heads to take to the cave as an offering. It is believed that the more pain you endure the greater the god given merit will be.