The escalator deposited us at the train station’s waiting area together with thirty other stranded souls. Outside, the weather had turned foul. Tea-coloured puddles gathered around curbs and corners. Unperturbed by the torrential downpour, the yellow-robed firewalkers went about barefoot and without umbrellas. All of them, without exception, held on to a stalk of neem leaves and one yellow-green lime. One guy had tucked his neem into the gathers of his yellow robe around his waist. Shoeless, he waded across a calf-high puddle without concern, his double-folded dhoti coming up to his knees. An Audi slowed down for him as he crossed the street, eyes gleaming and a steadfast purpose in his stride.
Much later in the night, pressed up against hundreds of unyielding bodies, standing next to a man sipping at a straw (I’m pretty sure it was vodka) from a paperbag, a Chinese lady asks me, “What is this all about?”
She had heard about theemithi from her friends, about how the firewalking ceremony is a huge event in Singapore’s Indian community. Thousands show up to rally their support for the firewalkers. Hundreds brave the journey across the burning coals. Standing across the street and looking up at the live feed set up from inside Sri Mariamman Temple, jostled around like a ragdoll, it’s obvious that this was not the experience she signed up for.
“So all of this starts with the Mahabharata. It’s considered the greatest Indian epic.”
“Like a story?”
“Yes. Like a story, except it’s a poem and some people think it really did happen.”
So I tell her about Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, and how she was almost publically disrobed in the court of the Kauravas, who were her husbands’ enemies. Krishna, the sweet and occasionally cheeky god so dark-coloured that he is depicted with blue skin, steps in and saves her from humiliation. This incident was arguably the catalyst that sparked off the Mahabharata, the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, blood cousins and bitter enemies.
Theemithi – the actual fire-walking ceremony – is only the culmination of several religious rituals, all of which mark the Pandavas’ eventual victory of that war between kin. In the Mahabharata’s grand finale, Draupadi walks on fire to prove her chastity and virtuosity. She emerges unscathed, without a single singe on her body.
Every year, tens of thousands of believers and devotees all over the world follow Draupadi’s example and brave the journey across hot coals in memory of that victory of light over darkness, of good over evil.
Potbellied and lean, hairy and smooth-skinned, young, old, tattooed, pierced, white bearded, clean shaven and ash-smeared – there is no standard stereotype of a firewalker, except that they are all dressed in saffron and yellow robes, now wet and clinging to their bodies. A crowd of men, hundreds of bodies, pressing in and moving about; the perennial dodging of elbows and polite (sometimes exasperated) excuse me’s had started. Hearing a woman’s voice, most stepped aside respectfully; others, not so. Such was the chaotic scene within the tented compound of Perumal Temple.
Vendors distributed Bandung – a pink coloured beverage of rose syrup with milk, a Singaporean favourite – and lukewarm chai. Also up for grabs: Styrofoam packets of rice and lentils. While the vegetarian food was primarily for devotees, firewalkers and their families, a few vagrant immigrants had wandered into the tented compound and were attacking the free vegetarian meals with gusto. They clustered in groups along the tent’s perimeter, uncaring of the puddles that leaked onto the tarpaulin. Some stood. Plastic chairs, placed at random locations, were occupied by women and the elderly. Human traffic flowed in every available direction. There was no method to this madness. I kept my elbows out and eyes alert.
Presiding over this utter mayhem was what sounded like devotional music. Devotional music sung by an exceptionally enthusiastic – but still quite tone-deaf – bearded man, and accompanied by an electronic keyboard. Everyone with neem stalks was waving them in the air, over their heads. Those without neem stalks were waving their hands. No one noticed that the music sounded like a rock band gone bad. No one else noticed that faint hint of marijuana in the air either. Odd, that.
A man stood guard near the entry into the main temple compound, where the firewalkers were praying in preparation for their sojourn across burning coals later in the night at another temple. An important-looking card hung around his neck. We made eye contact, and I approached him.
“Hi,” I smiled, presenting the most pleasant side of my personality.
“Hi,” he smiled back. Great start, I thought to myself, until he pointed at my camera and said, “You can’t go in. You need a media pass.”
“But I am documenting an important Hindu festival. More people need to know about this.”
He shook his head. “I’m very sorry, but you need to present a media card. There is no other way in.” He seemed genuinely apologetic.
“What happens after this?”
“The priest will start the prayers soon, then he will lead the whole procession towards Sri Mariamman Temple.”
“With the firewalkers?”
“With the firewalkers.”
“What time exactly, you think?”
“Hard to say exactly but maybe 6 o’clock the prayer will start. Half an hour later, the priest will start walking.” My watch read 5:57pm. Okay, I thought. Sounds reasonable.
I make my way outside, find shelter beneath the shophouses across the road. The monsoon scene made everything look like a parody. Traffic wardens in plastic ponchos and temple officials carrying stately black umbrellas.
Travelling in a single file in front of the temple were firewalkers draped in yellow and saffron robes. I peered through the viewfinder of my faithful Nikon. I need to take a step forward, to get a better angle, but find that my left foot is fastened to the ground. Stuck and… sticky? Definitely facing resistance. I look down and find my slipper wedged deep in a pile of something brown, black and resembling excrement. Definitely human.
I look up to my partner, unbelieving. “Find a puddle. Wash it.” Having dispensed with this ground-breaking advice, he snaps a photo of me looking dismally at my foot sunk in shit. Something for my wall of shame.
The downpour eventually calms into a steady drizzle; the sky deepens to a twilight blue. The humidity of the mushrooming crowd is tempered by a gentle, flirty breeze.
After ninety minutes of standing around, there is finally sign of activity: a traffic warden waves his hands and whistles for the traffic to stop. The temple gates open a fraction and eight men in dhotis march out. Spearheading the group is a man with a coco broom sweeping the ground in rapid strokes as he walks. He is followed by another man carrying a fire torch. The torch bearer is closely followed by a man with a small drum and another carrying prasadam in a steel pail. The rest appear to be just accompaniment. The entire procession hurries past as though they’re late for an appointment.
I am confused, irritated and a little angry. Was this it? This little 30-second performance was what I waited for all this while?
The three women on my right had staked out their spot around the same time as us. Up till now, they were engaged in a riveting conversation in Tamil. One of them turns to face me, perhaps sensing my irritation.
“What just happened, Aunty? Do you know?”
“Warding off evil, girl. Cleansing the path. After this, the priest will come.”
Again, it is the traffic warden’s cue that draws attention to the fact that something is about to happen. By this time, we had been standing for three hours. We entertained ourselves in every possible way: sang Hindi songs, played iPhone games, pointed at cars, watched YouTube videos and experimented with camera settings in low light conditions, all the while standing. The both of us are past irritation and well into exhaustion.
Finally, activity: about 50 firewalkers emerge from the temple and form a group. They are all skilfully draped in their yellow and saffron robes, foreheads and forearms smeared with ash. They deliberate, look around and talk to each other, generally appearing quite important.
The chief priest then arrives, heralded by a huge flame. He comes with a bunch of elderly men smeared with more ash than the first group and garlanded with jasmine and roses. One priest carries a statue in the likeness of Goddess Durga. He is surrounded by men holding sky-facing swords pierced with lime. The whole procession ambles down the road, keeping within the iron barricades, towards Sri Mariamman Temple 4 kilometres away.
We arrive by bus, catching the 147 from Little India to Chinatown, where Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple is located. Ah, life’s little ironies.
Theemithi, or firewalking, has been practised at Sri Marimman Temple since 1840. Given that, one would expect crowd control contingencies to be made for the day. Instead, all I see as I approach the temple is a wall of people. There were easily thousands packed into nearby lanes and standing on the curb, with more pouring in every minute. The air was thick with sweat and breath.
We pushed ahead as far as we could go but the crowd would not give. I saw maybe a total of ten women in all that time. There was no mayhem here, as opposed to the earlier madness at Perumal Temple. Most people stood rooted in their position, calmly watching the live feed on the huge screen. Occasionally, they clapped solemnly when a firewalker actually walked across the burning coal pit, as opposed to dashing or jogging. The clap was respectful, united, as though acknowledging the difficulty of what they were seeing.
I clapped, too. Seated on a beer drum belonging to a bar opposite the temple, beside a drunk but friendly old man who was sipping from a paperbag containing a mysterious but definitely alcoholic drink, I was glad to bear witness to the night’s events. The screen was perfectly visible from where I sat, which gave me a chance to analyse firewalking techniques. Some ran, others skipped. A select few walked across slowly like they didn’t feel the pain at all.
Later on, on my way home, I spoke to a firewalker. Kumaresan, 22 years old, has participated in the annual firewalking festival ever since he was 16. Every year, Kumar fasts for 48 days prior to the festival. He eats only vegetarian food and tries to stay clean in mind and body. A gleaming gold stud shines from his right earlobe, and I notice several tattoos on his chest and wrist.
“Doesn’t it hurt? Don’t you feel the heat?” I asked.
“Every firewalker will tell you the same thing. Your mind switches off. You cannot feel anything.”
“You mean like being in a trance?” I had heard about people going into trances before, but I was sceptical about the phenomenon.
“It’s not like entering a trance. I mean, sometimes people do get into a trance but the priests won’t let you walk on the coals if you are. They will wait for you to come out of it. Your mind has to be here. But you can ask anyone – you don’t feel anything. Like the pain, at that moment, does not matter.”
We stayed for a while, watching the screen, oohing and aahing with the rest of the crowd when a brave soul walked across the coals with the nonchalance of a man strolling in the park.
When I jumped off my makeshift seat to head home, I heard the drunk old man behind me saying goodbye. He motioned someone else to take my place. It had a good view.