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Lakhs Of Malaysian Hindus Celebrate Thaipusam Festival

PTI 30 Jan 2010, 14:44:01 IST

Hundreds of thousands of Malaysian Hindus, many with hooks pierced through the skin of their backs, thronged temples Saturday to celebrate a Hindu festival amid tensions surrounding attacks on houses of worship in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Eleven churches, three mosques, two Muslim prayer rooms and a Sikh temple have been attacked since early this month following a court ruling that allowed non-Muslims to use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

The verdict upset some Muslims and the government, which argues "Allah" is exclusive to Islam and its use by others could confuse Muslims into converting. Though damage in most of the attacks was minor, the incidents raised fears of religious tensions in this multiethnic nation, where about a third of its 28 million people are Buddhist, Hindu or Christian. Ethnic Indians account for 8 percent.

Addressing Hindu devotees at a temple complex outside Kuala Lumpur late Friday, Prime Minister Najib Razak called for mutual respect between all religions. Muslim Najib is only the second prime minister to visit the Batu Caves temple complex during the Thaipusam festival _ following his father some 30 years ago.

"I want to stress here that respecting each other's religion is not only a key virtue that we must defend in this country, it is also one of the principles in Islam," he was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying.

Some 60 percent of Malaysians are ethnic Malay Muslims. Religious minority groups have frequently complained of institutionalized discrimination. But the government dismisses claims it favors Malay Muslims.

Police deployed more than 1,000 officers to ensure the celebrations at Batu Caves go smoothly and devotees and tourists are safe, said district police chief Abdul Rahim Abdullah.

Every year, Hindu devotees across the country march to temples in colorful processions for the Thaipusam festival to give thanks for vows fulfilled and show penance.

At Batu Caves, men _ with lemons fastened to their backs with metal hooks _ carry heavy kalvadis: frames decorated with feathers and beads. Many dance in a trancelike state to drum beats before ascending the steep staircase to the main temple entrance.

Women and children _ their faces smeared with white paste _ balance brass pots with milk up the stairs. Tourists are drawn to the festival to watch. AP