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Walking on Fire to Evoke the Gods

In some parts of south India devotees take a vow to walk over burning embers in thanksgiving to the gods. Temple authorities arrange for a ritualistic ceremony where thousand of people congregate to watch.

The relation between man and fire is very ancient and holds a unique place in the life of man. Not only Indians but also the people of Greece and Rome worshipped fire which is still a mystery to man. This custom also exists among the Sri Lankans and Burmese and in the countries of Fiji, Japan, Hawaii, South Africa, Mauritius and Trinidad. There is a similarity between the dances of the American-Indians who while dancing stamp on glowing embers and the fire walkers of India-particularly in the south.

In south-India, fire-walking is held particularly in the temples in villages. Devotees take a vow to walk over fire in thanksgiving for the solution of their problems, cure from a disease or the birth of a son.

This ritual is deeply associated with the belief in the supernatural. People believe that they receive help from supernatural elements while walking over the burning embers. Even psychology plays an important part.

In Tamil Nadu, this ceremony of fire-walking usually takes place during the months of March and April, when it is very hot and the time considered apt to please the Goddess Sakthi who is also known as Mariamman and Koniamman, the protecting deity, whose temple can be found in each and every town and village. It believed that if this ceremony is conducted, the Goddess secures the cattle and crops and also protects people from all kinds of dangers and ill-health.

This ceremony generates extraordinary religious enthusiasm and thousands of devotees surge towards the shrine from the surrounding areas. If the person who has taken the vow is poor, he will have to wait until the temple arranges for the ceremony.

Ten days before the actual ritual takes place, special worship is offered to the goddess, thrice daily. Hundreds of devotees gather in the temple. In the olden days, every night portions of the Mahabharata were enacted or recited in the typical village fashion. Just two days before the ceremony, the head priest ties a piece of saffron dyed thread or cloth on the hand of the devotees. The thread is tied on the right hand of men and the left had of women. The nights are spent only in the temple yards. The last two days are spent in the temple itself.

On the day of the actual ceremony, the devotees, observe a fast. They have their bath in the temple tank or well and offer prayers in the temple along with the others who have taken a similar vow.

About middy, a pit about fifteen feet long and five feet wide and a foot deep is dug in front of the shrine. It is washed with a solution of cow-dung-a process of purification. Cartloads of wood and charcoal are spread in the pit.

The head priest, after bathing, sets fire to the fuel in the pit. The firewood and charcoal are left to burn, till they become hot-embers. In come places, the fire embers are left free and loose. While they walk on this pit, one can see the feet of the walkers sink in about two or three inches into the embers. But in other places, the fire embers are kept well tightened, hardened and leveled by striking at them with bamboo poles. The ashes are then winnowed with the help of a bunch of fresh neem leaves.

Just an hour before the actual ritual, the devotees assemble in front of the pit. The head priest performs the puja. But before he allows anyone to enter the pit, he performs three tests.

First he balance a sword on the rim of an earthen pot. Then he puts a few pieces of burning charcoal in a cloth dipped in saffron water, without affecting the cloth. Next he examines the flowers and lime that had been put away a few days before while performing the puja. They should still be fresh. In some place, another test is conducted. The priest keeps some fresh hot cinders on the lap of the idol and it is regarded as a bad omen if the cloth on which they are kept burns. In some other places, the test of the falling of a flower to the right is considered a good omen.

After this, the priest clad in yellow clothes and decked with garlands, walks over the hot-embers first-calmly, deliberately and very slowly. One can see his feet sinking into the embers. The other devotees follow him and walk equally deliberately the whole length of the pit, amidst the anxious faces of their kith and kin who have assembled around the pit. There is a deafening sound of trumpets, drums and cymbals. Neither the priest nor the devotees lift their feet very high. They walk deliberately and calmly. The young children watch the ceremony in total awe.

The relatives of the vow-takers wait on the other side of the pit to receive them. They cover the devotees with new clothes, give them something to drink, and take them home.

There is a belief that the persons walking over the fire-embers are possessed by the Goddess, for they lie unconscious for some time after reaching the other end and they experience no pain while walking over the embers. It is a known fact that they no not apply anything over their feet or body.

Many of those assemble at the place consider the ashes of the fire-embers sacred and take them home as charm to drive away devils and demons.

In India, this religious belief a seen not only in Tamil Nadu but also in the coasts of Malabar and Visakhapatnam and also in the district of Anantapur, Godawari, Nellore and Krishna of Andhra Pradesh.

To walk over fire successfully, one should have no fear, and no muscular tension but should have deep concentration and belief in supernaturalism.

Apart from walking over fire-embers, another system that is in existence is the carrying of fire-pots, which is considered equal to the fire-walk. The rituals are almost the same as during the fire-walk. The vow-takers usually carry the fire-pots and a bunch of neem-leaves in their hands and go around the temple amidst the clanging of drums and cymbals. The commencement rituals are the same for carrying the fire-pot and the fire-walk. The temples in which this ceremony takes place prepare them-selves well in advance to accommodate the overflowing crowd. Fairs are arranged for the crowd. Shops arise by the side of the temples to sell flowers, fruits, fancy items like bangles, ribbons and also a variety of pots of different shapes and sizes.

Though the world has changed and has advanced in every walk of life, it is only religious belief and faith that give real satisfaction to the human soul. The popular belief is that sincere worship fulfills the wishes of the devotees and mere faith brings hundreds of others to the temple every year.