Tests of fire-The Drowpathy Amman Firewalking Festival

A wild eyed boy runs shrieking across the smouldering coal pit. His face is a turmeric paste mask on which an intricate tattoo of red and white dots has been painted to circle his eyes. He wears green bangles and flowers in his hair.He runs past, hands outstretched. His glazed eyes are unseeing. I have seen similar dots on other Devi worshippers across India; in West Bengal and the trance-possessed Bhagavathy Theyyam dancers in Kerala.A portly woman in a yellow sari staggers over the burning embers and then faints. A group of waiting men carry away her limp form. A voice on the PA system narrates mythological tales centred around the Goddess. The tamte vadya sets a hypnotic rhythm and the crowd chants to the beat, “Govinda! Gopala! Madhava! Keshava! Narayanaaaaa!”

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Over 100 turmeric smeared, vividly made up men and women in yellow clothing and green bangles prepare to cross a 15’ x 24’ coal pit that has been burning at the RBANMS Grounds, off Old Market Road in Ulsoor since noon. Some hold a bunch of neem leaves in their hands while others cross with lemons, ritual offerings for the Goddess in pouches around their waist and stuffed into their mouths. The lemons are believed to acquire curative properties as they pass through the fire. Members of the transgender community, also called Aravani’s, step daintily across the coals in bridal finery with jasmine in their hair. They come in allegiance to their patron deity, Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Uloopi whose severed head is found in many Draupadi temples across South India.

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It is the 43rd year of the famous Sri Drowpathy Amman Fire Walking Festival, and thousands of devotees have assembled here to either fulfil vows (vratas) or make new ones. They also pray for individual and community wellbeing.The preparatory rituals and inaugural pooja have been completed at dusk. The large processional deities of Arjuna, Draupadi and Sri Devi Padavettamman have been worshipped in their chariots. The darkness intensifies. The deceptively calm evening that began as an innocuous salutation to the Goddess, now rises in pitch and intensity.

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The drums begin to beat noisily and a boy enters swaying to the beat. He holds aloft a statue of the Potha Raja in his hands and dances wildly around the pit, spinning crazily out of control, like a top. I feel dizzy just looking at him. The percussion intensifies. The crowd utters a collective gasp. CI Ananthakrishnan, the Karaga bearer has arrived. He is draped in jasmine flowers and carries the `karagam‘ or sacred pot inside his headdress. He circles the pit thrice, dancing to an unknown beat in his head.He is the first to cross the coals. He then dispenses lemons and blesses devotees in a corner for the rest of the evening. He looks straight at me and holds out his hand. On it is a lemon. Near him, the processional idol of Lord Krishna waits in another chariot.He has formally assumed the role of Draupadi’s brother for the festivities and will soon give her away in marriage.Wife of the five Pandavas, she is widely regarded as a symbol of duty, devotion and virtue.

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Born to King Drupad from a sacrificial fire, Draupadi is closely associated with this volatile element by way of ritual and temperament. An incident from the Mahabharata tells us that when Duryodhana, a Kaurava, orders his brother Dushasana to disrobe Draupadi in front of the entire court, she petitions Krishna to save her honour. Miraculously, her sari continues to unfurl endlessly. She then walks barefoot on hot coals to prove her purity and famously vows that she will comb her hair only after smearing Duryodhana’s blood on it. She is definitely not meek and docile, this village deity. She is the quintessential feminine Shakti in its most primeval form and her worshippers (both men and women) honour their Mother Goddess by walking over the coals dressed in her likeness. The fire walking is popularly called `Thimithi’ or `Pookulithal’ in Tamil Nadu. Its practitioners believe that the Amman’s power and their devotion transforms the coals into a `bed of flowers’ underfoot. They feel no pain. It is also marked by piercing, other body modifications and tests of faith in more traditional situations.

V Sreedharan, the Secretary of the Tamil Sangam prepares to cross the pit. A group of men follow him. The women go next and then its the turn of the beautifully bedecked transgender community. There is space for everyone and the festival is remarkably well organised.Festival goers chat enthusiastically. They tell me that hardly anyone from`the other side’ of the Cantonment attends local festivals. I get invited to yet another festival in July and accept immediately. I have a special fondness for these magnificent Ammans who watch over my city.

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The 41 day festival is usually held around May-June. It begins with a flag hoisting. The fire walking on the 39th day is followed by the Vasanthotsava which is celebrated by sprinkling tamarind water on each other. Though traditionally linked to non-Brahminical Tamil populations that settled in Bangalore over the centuries, Ganesh Rao Ambekar, a devotee and festival regular says reverentially that Drowpathy Amman’s powerful energy heals all. One of the women here has been cured of cancer. And while modern physics refuses to acknowledge any paranormal influence whatsoever, there is no accounting for the power of collective faith and its role in building a shared identity.

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Smoke rises from the coals. It obscures the turmeric coloured bodies that cross over in quick succession. Some cheat a little. They dash across with one foot in and one off the pit. Others follow, chanting steadily with folded hands and eyes shut. Some run past in a daze. Those who are momentarily disoriented get led away by volunteers. I get overwhelmed by the drama and immerse myself in this multi-layered experience. It is one of many created by Bangalore’s migrant communities who contribute to the city’s rich cultural pluralism.

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Find it at: RBANMS Grounds, Off Old Market Road, Ulsoor. Season: May-June.Entry: Free. Time: 6.00 pm onwards.

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This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on June 30th, 2014.Read it here.

 

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5 comments

  1. Raghavendra Bangalore · · Reply

    amazing article …and in general great writing Bangalore Girl….Any thoughts on bringing out the work as a book?

    1. a book like this needs time, money and people to believe in it.:-) and finding that is tough.But, thank you for reading.:-)

      1. Raghavendra · ·

        Money part I can understand…but about readers…I can see that peter colaco, m fazlul hasan, aditi day, b n Sundar rao sold and they are the indicators of belief …they were different and were digging the past….the set of articles here contain the past but like age to the present… I think its worth while to talk about rich history of our beloved city….

  2. I meant belief not from a readers point of view, but on the part of publishers who need to believe and invest in a book like this.:-)

  3. Great post. I love the color of both the images and your writing.

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