In a mass of pierced bodies and peacock feathers, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians are trekking uphill, into Malaysia's most sacred Hindu cave, for a bedazzling pilgrimage of penance and piety. Some devotees in the annual Thaipusam festival pay homage to their deity Lord Muruga (Murugan) by lancing their backs with steel hooks and sliding skewers through their cheeks for the ascent to the Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur. The festival was brought to the Southeast Asian country during the British colonial era by 19th century immigrants from southern India. The ritual is celebrated in cities throughout Malaysia, as well as in Singapore and Sri Lanka.On the morning of Thaipusam, the most ardent participants place heavy "kavadi" - wooden or metal arches - on their shoulders, lavishly decorated with flowers, peacock feathers and huge pictures of Hindu deities. In Malaysia, Thaipusam is also a call of unity for ethnic Indians.