Many Filipino devotees perform religious penance during the week leading up to Easter Sunday as a form of worship and supplication, a practice discouraged by Catholic bishops, but widely believed by devotees to cleanse sins, cure illness and even grant wishes.
"I do this penance out of my free will because I believe that God will help relieve my sickness," Corazon Cabigting, a domestic helper and the only woman in a group of about 50 men carrying wooden crosses on their backs.
Like the men, Cabigting wore a maroon robe and covered her face with a veil, held on her head by a crown of stainless wire, dragging a 30-kg (66-lb) wooden cross and stopping every 500 meters (546 yards) in makeshift roadside chapels.
Elderly women chant the passion of Jesus Christ at some of the chapels, while the penitents, with their hands tied to the cross, are beaten by sticks and hemp.
"Priests often tell us that we should not be doing this," Melvin Pangilinan, an organizer of the annual Lenten ritual who carried cross in his younger days, told Reuters. "But, it has been our tradition for decades and we have to honor it."
In nearby Angeles City, bloody gashes from repeated strikes of whips could be seen on the backs of devotees as they walked barefoot along the streets, believing that their sacrifice would somehow grant salvation for their sins.
Devotees, begin the ritual by tying a rope around their arms and legs and inflicting wounds on their backs with a blade marching for about four to five hours under a scorching sun.
Carlito Santos, a pastor at a local Methodist Church, said the practice cannot be easily relinquished as it has already been embedded in the local culture.
"It is easy to change these religious practices by asking these devotees to refrain from practicing it, but, because of culture and tradition, it does not always work," he said.
Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the Church has discouraged the practices, describing them as "inappropriate".
"What happens here is that we want God to grant us what we wish for," Quitorio told Reuters, saying it is enough for true Catholics to pray, fast and give alms during the Lenten season.
Over 80 percent of Filipinos practice the Catholic religion.
(Reporting By Roli Ng, Peter Blaza, Krystine Antonio and Camille Elvina; Writing by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Ed Lane)
Kavadi Attam is a dance performed by the devotees during the ceremonial worship of Murugan, the Tamil God of War. It is often performed during the festival of Thaipusam and emphasizes debt bondage. The Kavadi itself is a physical burden through which the devotees implore for help from the God Murugan.
Generally, Hindus take a vow to offer a kavadi to idol for the purpose of tiding over or averting a great calamity. For instance, if the devotee's son is laid up with a fatal disease, he would pray to Shanmuga to grant the boy a lease of life in return for which the devotee would take a vow to dedicate a kavadi to Him.
Devotees like Avinash Gooransingh prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Murugan. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and take only pure, Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God.
On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens). At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common.
The simplest kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders, to the temple. In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheeks reminds him constantly of Lord Murugan. It also prevents him from speaking and gives great power of endurance. Other types of kavadi involve hooks stuck into the back and either pulled by another walking behind or being hung from a decorated bullock cart or more recently a tractor, with the point of incisions of the hooks varying the level of pain.