In a major concession to the agitated ethnic Indian community in Malaysia, the government on Sunday declared the Hindu festival of Thaipusam a national holiday.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said the government had taken the decision after getting requests from the ethnic Indian community, which forms just 7.8 per cent of the total population in this Muslim-majority country.
"Moreover, every year during Thaipusam, the roads in Kuala Lumpur are very congested," Abdullah told a cheering crowd of over 20,000 ethnic Indians at rally in Kuala Lumpur organised by the Malaysian Indian Congress, the third lagrest component of the ruling Barisan Party.
The opposition had also urged the prime minister to recognise the festival as a reconciliatory gesture in the wake of tensions following the government's crackdown on agitating Indian workers.
Thaipusam, which is widely celebrated by Hindu ethnic Malaysian Indians, who are mostly from Tamil Nadu, is currently a holiday in the states of Selangor, Perak, Negri Sembilan, Johor and Penang.
Every year on Thaipusam, thousands of Hindus climb the 172 steps of the Batu Caves outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, balancing milk pails on their heads and many with spears pierced through their bodies, to pray at the Murugan temple atop.
Thaipusam is also widely observed among ethnic Indian Tamils in neighbouring Singapore. This year Thaipusam falls on January 23.
Diwali is also a public holiday in Malaysia.