Ritual of Walking on the FireThe ritual of walking on the fire is also popularly known as Theemithi which is celebrated as an international Hindu festival. The origin of the fire walking festival is from Tamil Nadu in South India. The theemithi ritual involves the walking of the devotee on the fire praying to God for his or her wish or desire to be fulfilled by the Goddess Draupadi, the main character of Mahabharata and the wife of the five Pandava brothers. The fire walking festival is mainly celebrated in the month of Aipasi according to the Tamil calendar whereas in the Gregorian calendar it falls between the months of October and November. The ritual of Theemithi is not only practiced and celebrated in India but also in other countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, and South Africa and in countries which have more South Indian population.
Preparations for the Theemithi Celebrations-The preparations made for the theemithi celebrations involves nearly two-and-a-half month period during which the story of the epic Mahabharata is enacted depicting almost 18 discernible rites. The ritual of Theemithi is dedicated to one of the main female deity Amman and also other various village deities in connection with the Shakti cult in South Indian and Tamil Culture. It is more of a ceremony or ritual of self purification for attaining spiritualism. Also as they worship the Lord Amman and walk on the coal of fire they are believed to come out safe or unscathed if they are showered by the blessings of Goddess Amman. Theemithi is also referred by a local term, Poo Methippu or Pomethipu (flower walking). It is so called because the color of the burning coal looks exactly like heaps of orange flowers. This ritual is not gender based for both men and women take part in the ritual of theemithi. Sometimes even small children take active part in this ritual or they will be carried by the mother or the father on their shoulders.
Legend Behind Fire Walking
-Though the legend of Draupadi is not very famous behind the ritual of fire walking, it mainly states that by the act of Theemithi one gets purified by the Agni and this is said in numerous ancient Hindu scriptures and also there are lot of mentions about fire walking in the most popular agni pariksha undertaken by Sita in Ramayana after Lord Ram rescued her from Lanka.
Theemithi is not a single ritual performed on a particular day but it is a summit of various religious rituals which is brought into effect or shown from the great Hindu epic Mahabharatha.The fire walking ceremony mainly denotes the victory of the Mahabharata war by the Pandavas with the great Kaurava warriors. Mahabharata is the story of a gambling session during which the Pandava brothers lose everything they had including their wife Draupadi. But Duryodhana who was still not happy even after the defeat of the Pandavas decided to disgrace them by asking his younger brother to strip Draupadi in the public but she was saved by Lord Krishna.
Theemithi as a Part of Sacredness- This lady Draupadi of misfortune who adheres strictly to the dharma of Hindu principles and moral values takes the vow of combing her hair only after smearing Duryodhana's blood and uses his femur as a comb. Then the great Mahabharata war took place for thirteen years and her vow was fulfilled where she combs her hair for the first time after thirteen years. The impressing ending of the victory was when Draupadi walks on fire, a process known as Theemithi, to prove her adroitness and virginity by her adherence to dharma and walks out as fresh as flowers. Thus theemithi is celebrated to commemorate this great event.
The theemithi thus re-enacts events as the chief priest walks across the fire with the karakam (a sacred, decorated pot) the goddess inside is thus tested anew. Likewise, her devotees, if they are as pure as Draupadi, will cross the coals unharmed. The devotees before the theemithi as a part of sacredness abstain themselves from non-vegetarian food and other conjugal activity. Draupadi is believed to be the mother Goddess who presides over fire walking in South Indian rituals just like Mariamman who is the principal goddess of Sri Mariamman Temple, and may be one of the reasons why Sri Mariamman Temple is the location for the fire walking ceremony.
Major Rituals Which Take Place at the Time of Theemithi- Some of the major rituals which take place at the time of Theemithi are the reading of the Mahabharata and the ritual of the fire walking starts much ahead during the month of Adi which usually falls between July and August. The commemoration of the Theemithi is signified by hoisting a flag with the painting of Arjuna with the monkey God Hanuman, symbolising strength in the Mariamman temple. From the day the flag is hoisted the reading of the Mahabharata takes place in the night and goes on two days after Theemithi. People or the devotees who are going to take part in the Theemithi are supposed to stick on to daily special prayers and fasting at least three weeks prior to the actual ritual so that they prepare and purify themselves for the religious service or procession.
Keesaka Samharam is another ritual which takes place two days ahead of the Theemithi ceremony. This ritual denotes the slaying of the commander-in-chief Keesaka by the great Bheeman, one of the Pandava brothers when the former tried attemting to seduce Draupadi and the name given to this ceremony is Keesaka Samharam. Also two days before the fire walking the kumbuduthandam, an act of penance is performed. The devotee strips down and rolls around the temple grounds up to three laps of 150 m per round.
Fire Pit for the Theemithi
-The fire pit which is dug for the Theemithi is about 2.7 m in length and at the end of the pit there is usuallu another smaller pit dug where milk is poured into it. After the initial worshipping session is over all the participants of the Theemithi are tied on the wrist with a yellow string with some turmeric and a spray of Margosa, or Neem leaf. Now the chief Priest of the Amman temple light or ignite the fire pit with sandal wood pieces and logs and then the fire seems to burn on its own. Once the coal is formed the Theemithi is initiated by the Chief Priest walking across the fire pit with a karakam, a sacred, decorated pot balanced on his head. The chief priest is then followed by the other devotees and at the end of the fire walk they cool their feet in a pool of cow's milk for milk is considered to be very sacred according to the Hindus.
Fire in the Pit is Extinguished with Milk and Water-At the end of the session the fire in the pit is extinguished with milk and water. The ceremony of Theemithi comes to an end only after two days after the actual event has taken place and also by reading the final chapter of Mahabharata where the victory of the great war is signified by the lowering of the flag which was hoisted before the ceremony.
Fire walking is also part of Theyyam ritual in Northern Kerala. This is a kind of dance where the devotees wear burning wicks around their waist and walk in the fire pit. In the Uccitta ritual associated with Theyyam, the dancer jumps into the fire and sits in fire, symbolizing Sati who self immolated during Daksha Yaga. The Mariamman temple in Singapore and the Bannari Amman temple in Tamil Nadu, India is said to attract lot of devotees and gains extreme media attention. The fire walking rituals held at the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple in Singapore before Diwali and at the Bannari Amman temple in Tamil Nadu attract lot of media attention. Many people have also raised their voice against the fire ritual stating it is dangerous and should not be permitted in a modern society. But the ritual is still practiced in small villages, towns and in cities across India.