Low-caste Hindus thronged temples in eastern India on Wednesday to take part in a festival that sees believers drive metal rods through their tongues to purify their souls.
In one temple in Beinon village, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, 1,000 spectators jostled for a glimpse of the ritual despite opposition from the authorities to the gory practice.
"There has been attempts to stop this festival but we will not be deterred," said Shashti Bhushan Chakraborty, head priest of a temple to Hindu god Shiva, where an AFP reporter saw 60 people have spikes driven through their tongues.
The iron rod is removed once the believer makes a round of the village collecting alms, which usually takes about an hour.
"This is an ancient practice and we have been conducting it every year," Chakraborty said in Beinon, one of the many West Bengal villages where the popular ritual, called Shiber Gajon, has been underway since Tuesday.
Only low castes volunteer for the practice - which starts on the eve of the Bengali New Year - in the hope the searing pain will cleanse their soul and grant them higher status.
Low-caste Hindus still face severe discrimination despite efforts to reduce the grip of the hierarchical system on Indian society.
They have restricted access to education, employment and housing and are often reduced to performing menial tasks such as cleaning sewers and collecting garbage.
Organisers rejected official fears that the tongue-piercings could cause serious injuries or life-threatening infections.
"We have attained this knowledge from our forefathers and so far there has been no infections among these people," said Kalipada Bhattacharya, one of those responsible for the piercings.
The regional ritual also includes the insertion of iron hooks into the skin, free-falling from high platforms and hanging upside down over fiery pots to frenzied drum beats.
Millions of Hindu pilgrims and hundreds of ash-covered ascetics were bathing Wednesday in holy Hindu river of the Ganges to wash away their sins in a three-yearly event called the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Fair).Reuse content