SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - At just before 7 a.m. on Tuesday, the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Singapore bustles with an unusual crowd of devotees.
Their cheeks pierced with metal spears, the skin on their backs pulled taut by dozens of hooks, the men and women gather from 1 a.m. onwards to celebrate Thaipusam, a two-day festival to honor the Hindu god Shiva's youngest son, Lord Muruga.
Painful as it looks, the motivation for the piercing is simple, explained Melvin Ho, a first-time Thaipusam participant.
"I believe in gods," the 49-year-old man of Chinese origin said, minutes before a friend inserted a meter-long metal skewer through his cheeks.
Some 10,000 devotees, mostly from the Tamil community that makes up four percent of Singapore's population, annually subject themselves to being poked, pricked and pierced in various parts of their anatomies for the festival.
They believe the piercings will leave no scars and they will feel no pain, protected from bodily harm by the strict regime of abstinence, piety and vegetarianism they follow for a month before the festival, which falls in the Hindu month of Thai.
Indeed, the man who pierced Ho appeared to feel more pain than he did, grimacing as he pushed the sharpened skewer through his friend's flesh.
With more than a dozen limes -- commonly used in prayers and to ward off evil -- hanging off strings tied to the metal hooks protruding from his back, Ho took his place among the pierced women and bare-chested men picking up wooden kavadis, or portable altars, to carry them four-and-a-half kilometers (three miles) to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple where the procession ends.
Marching alongside Ho, his friend carried a ceremonial milk pot, while an estimated crowd of 50,000 families, friends and onlookers prayed and chanted.
For national serviceman Vicky, 23, who has carried a kavadi in Thaipusam every year since he was 12, the festival is a means of giving thanks and prayers.
The entire family walks beside Vicky each year to show their support, said his sister Sasi, giving only one name for herself and her brother.
"Everyone here has somebody with them, so they don't feel alone," she said as she watched Vicky being pierced.
The procession ends with devotees making offerings and pouring pots of milk over a statue of the merciful Murugan, one of hundreds of gods who populate the colorful Hindu pantheon.
While Tamil communities across Asia carry the kavadi, the piercings are unique to Singapore and Malaysia, an official from the Hindu Endowments Boards (HEB) said.
"Piercing is very common here but not in India. It's evolved through the years since the last century," she said.
Asked why piercing took off in Singapore, but not elsewhere, the official laughed and admitted she did not know.
"They probably have more to be thankful about," she said.
(Editing by Gillian Murdoch)