Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hindu Fire Walking in Suva

Indians have been in Fiji since the mid-nineteenth century when they were brought over as indentured workers for the sugarcane plantations owned by the British settlers. With them came the centuries old Hindu religion and associated rituals.

Classic Indian dancing and music preceded the fire walking

We were privileged to attend one of the most interesting and unique festivals here in Suva, dedicated to the Goddess Durga. We watched about a dozen men with multiple body piercings march across a hot bed of charcoal at the Raj Maha Mariamman Temple.

While much of the Mariamman temple is of simple design, this dome stood out for its remarkable decorations.

Purified women await the entry of the fire walkers and priests

The Goddess Durga represents the active side of the energy ("shakti") of Lord Shiva and is usually portrayed carrying weapons in her many arms. She is the protector of the righteous and destroyer of the evil.

Priest making an offering to the goddess.

Musicians lead in the fire walkers

Kali, or the dark goddess, is the fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess Durga.
In southern India, the celebration usually takes place in the pre-monsoon season and poojadaris (worshipers) pray for rain.  In Fiji, where there is plenty of rain, the celebrants give thanks to the mother Goddess for blessings received and as a vow pledged for some special request. They eat only vegetarian food in the preceding ten days, pray morning and night, and fast for 24 hours.

The fire walkers arrive

On Sunday morning, the celebrants had their bodies skewered with foot long sharp metal tridents, commonly through the ears, lips, arms, chest and back, bathed in the sea, and walked/danced two miles to the temple on Howell Road.

The fire walkers pass across the pit of coals several times.

Some walk a well-trodden center path, but others stride through the ashes

After the priests blessed them at the gates, they walked clockwise around the temple and crossed the fire pit. This was repeated at least three times. The musicians played a haunting melody beside the pit and some of the participants seemed to be in a trance.

Piercings and markings

A particularly fine set of piercings. These tridents are removed immediately after the circuits of the temple.

During the circuits of the temple, the purified anointed themselves with sindoor, which is supposed to ward off evil 
How do these men suffer body piercing and walk across fire? The devotees say they feel no pain as they are totally focused on their devotions to the Goddess and have achieved a state of "grace" through the purification process.

Durga is carried around the temple behind the fire walkers

Close-up of  mother Goddess Durga

Kali  carries a bloody trident - an instrument of war.

Kali also carried a whip
Studies as early as the 1930's have shown that ordinary people can walk across coals. This is possible because wood in general and charcoal in particular are poor thermal conductors and a layer of ash further insulates the feet from the heat. Furthermore, the feet are only in contact with the hot coals for a second or so over a typical fire-walking bed (24 feet). As long as people walk reasonably quickly but not run, there will not be enough time for their feet to heat up to the point where they will suffer burns (although some walkers may suffer blistering in the arches of their feet or between their toes). We did see one young boy grimace in pain and abort his attempt after taking two or three steps, but the remainder of the fire walkers were not visibly harmed.

This man with his remarkable piercings walked serenely across the coals and appeared to be in a trance.

Fire walkers dancing as they approach the pit.

At this temple, women are not permitted to walk across the fire, but many take part in the purification and make circuits of the temple.

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