There has to be some sort of trick to firewalking, surely people don’t really walk across hot ash wearing no protection on their feet; this was my supposition as I headed towards Bangalore’s Cantonment district and the annual Sri Drowpathy Amman Fire Walking Festival.
The contagious joy expressed at Indian festivals, vivid colours and their propensity to provide fascinating insights into cultural traditions means I’ve become something of a South Asia festival junkie. So, on hearing that the Sri Drowpathy Amman Fire Walking Festival is Asia’s biggest, I jumped in the next available rickshaw to seek out my next fix.
Firewalking in Bangalore, India
Interestingly, this firewalking festival, in its current incarnation, has only been around for four decades but it draws upon a 500 year old tradition. People of Tamil descent, devotees of the Hindu goddess Draupadi, brought the firewalking festival with them as they settled in Bangalore. Many Tamils moved here in the nineteenth century, as servants of British Indian Army officers. Even today the lilting tones of Tamil are commonly heard in the historic Cantonment district.
The secretary of the festival’s organising committee, M. Rajendra Naidu, welcomed me into their headquarters close to the Sri Devi Padavettamman Temple. Internationally, Bangalore is renowned for its hi-tech, high rise offices and the call centres out at Whitefield. But here in the heart of the Cantonment cows with painted horns still potter about on the streets with open-fronted shops. Save for men in dhotis (cotton wraps) playing with their mobile phones it’s easy to imagine that little has changed here since the British left, back in 1947.
The origins of firewalking
Naidu explained the symbolic roots of the firewalking festival can be traced back to the Mahabharata and the story of Draupadi’s birth. She was born into fire to safeguard dharma (truth and well-being) so the festival is symbolic of her rebirth, and the firewalking a purification of her devotees.
The festival, in total, lasts 48 days but the actual firewalking takes place only on the 46th day. For committed devotees, Draupadi is the central figure in their lives for the duration of the festival. They eat only vegetarian food and the men sleep in the temple, avoiding contact with women. Some shave their moustaches and beards in honour of Draupadi’s femininity, donning saris and wearing make up during the firewalk, so that they resemble and represent the goddess. Mahabharata discourses are held, which the devotees attend.
Walking barefoot on hot ash
Remarkably, 500 men and women choose to walk across the 23 foot long pit of hot ash to show their devotion to Draupadi. I went with Naidu to take a look at the 18 inch deep pit of ash being raked and prepared in the run up to the festival. The heat from the glowing embers made it clear to me that if there was some kind of trick to walking across the ash without injury, it certainly wasn’t because the pit of ash was cool.
I’d read that some firewalkers dip their feet in water before walking across hot embers. The Leidenfrost Effect, which most people have experienced while extinguishing the flame of a candle between wetted thumb and forefinger, thus prevents burning.
Others, I’d heard, apply ointments to protect their skin. Naidu smiled patiently as I asked if that happened here, he’d heard such doubts before. No, he was adamant, none of those shenanigans went on here.
The secret of firewalking
The secret to getting across the pit safely was, he assured me, faith. “Some people do get burned, but praying is important. If everything is right, pukka, nothing will happen. If you do no harm to others nothing will happen. We pray to god, nothing will happen,” said Naidu.
A crowd of 50,000 onlookers gathered to watch the participants walk across the hot ash. Anywhere else in the world, I’d suspect that some of those might harbour an element of Schadenfreude and secretly hope to see a bit of suffering. But this is India. In an effort to dispel my scepticism, Naidu invited me to watch proceedings from within the secure area, right by the side of the pit.
An Indian religious festival
A choir of women in saris sang devotional songs. Participants in yellow clothing and smeared with tumeric paste looked nervous as they waited to walk across the pit of ash. A couple of the men wore heavy silk wedding saris, in honour of Draupadi, the other firewalkers had sacks of lemons tied around their waists.
Naidu explained that, depending upon the size of the participant, the firewalkers would carry a bundle of either 51 or 101 lemons. Having passed through the fire, the lemons are regarded as purified and deemed to hold a holy spirit. The fruit is subsequently given to people who are ill, or to childless or unmarried women. The aim is to foster recovery, fertility and marriage.
Is it Draupadi or Drowpathy?
The main character of the festival is the Karaga, who can be identified by a huge headdress, decorated with strings of jasmine flowers. The Karaga is always the first person to cross the pit of ash, but only after swirls of smoke as seen, an indicator that Draupadi is present. The Karaga’s ten man bodyguard then followed him across. Some walked, looking serene, others ran, kicking up hot ash that landed right by me.
The beating of the drums, the volume of voices from the crowd and heat of the pit pushed up my adrenalin level and heart rate. I looked at the faces of the devotees about to enter the pit; some joked, others prayed, some seemed detached and serene.
The hottest festival in Indian?
One or two fire walkers screamed as they passed through the pit. For some it was exultation, but for one woman, who collapsed at the end, it was agony.
Being so close to the action convinced me that there really were no tricks involved and that the people walking across the hot ash were exposing themselves to a significant physical risk. After the firewalk, one of the participants, who recognised me from the temple, showed me the soles of his unblemished feet.
This remarkable festival is worth experiencing in the flesh, particularly when that flesh remains free of injury.
For more information about travel and tourism in India, see the Incredible India! website.
For more about the surrounding region see the Karnataka tourism website.