Fire Walking at the Theemithi Festival in Singapore

by Rosemarie John on October 18, 2011

By Rosemarie John – A swarm of bare chested Hindu devotees, jasmine flowers adorned on women clad in bright lemon yellow sarees and the beat of drums fill the elaborately lantern-lit part of  Chinatown  ! Situated in the heart of Singapore’s Chinese roots, is the Sri Mariamman Temple that plays host to the annual Fire Walking (Theemithi) Festival in honour of Princess Draupadi.

Known for her struggles portrayed in the Sanskrit epic Mahabaratha (400 BCE) and also considered the reincarnation of the Goddess Mariamman by South Indians, the Tamil version of the epic dating circa 1400 CE includes apotheosis to the powerful Goddess as Draupadi’s innocence and chastity is proved by walking barefoot over hot coals.

Photo Courtesy: Suki Singh

Also signifying victory of the Kurukshetra war and dynastic struggle between the Pandava and the Kaurava families in the kingdom of Kuru around 9 century BC, the Theemithi Festival is the culmination of several religious rituals which re-enacts important and auspicious events from the Mahabaratha with the Pandava’s emerging triumphant.

Venerating Draupadi and to demonstrate self devotion, valour and fortitude, Hindu priests and devotees alike fire walk over burning wood as part of a religious vow in exchange for blessings from Goddess Mariamman.

Photo Courtesy: Suki Singh

As the hands of over 3000 devotees are whipped and a yellow string with turmeric and a spray of Margosa or Neem leaves are tied to the wrist of all fire walkers, a customary 5 kilometre procession from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road, Chinatown  is then under taken.

The extreme right lanes of all roads leading to the temples are cordoned off by big white barricades that also contain thousands of acolytes that are segregated into groups before heading into the temple to perform their turn in the fire walking ritual.

Taken on mostly by men, preparations that lead to the actual day of fire walking is also a journey of resilience as devotees observe strict vegetarianism and fasting rituals weeks before. The smouldering white, orange and ash coloured embers is prepared in a fire pit about 2.7  metres in length at the Sri Mariamman Temple. At the end of the fire pit is a pool of cow’s milk which devotees walk into to cool their feet from the scorching heat of glowing cinders.

Photo Courtesy: Suki Singh

Photo Courtesy: Suki Singh

Charity and goodwill is seen in many corners of  Chinatown  as local restaurateurs provide free chilled lemonade to all participants and spectators. Deli Vege Restaurant on 200 South Bridge Road had the whole family involved in pouring and offering out drinks to people. It was truly a lovely sight of cross cultural acceptance in Singapore.

Amalgamation of culture is not just seen in the location of the Sri Mariamman Temple  but in its participants as well. Standing out in the crowds are local Chinese devotees who have also embraced the ritual and taken on fire walking as a serious act of faith.

This 170 year old tradition starts out early in the day and goes on till about 6 am until every devotee has had their turn to express their ultimate religious zeal to God. It is said, that those who do get burned have not fulfilled their fasting rituals religiously. Completing the challenge miraculously unscathed, fire walking is a wonderful experience of what faith can accomplish.

Watch this 1913 black and white video of what Fire Walking was like in Singapore back then…

Getting There:

The Sri Mariaman Temple is located at 244 South Bridge Road, Chinatown  058793, Singapore. Hop on the MRT and alight at Chinatown Station and take Exit A into Pagoda Street, walk on straight until you reach the temple. Its easy to find.

Photo Courtesy: Suki Singh

Please note that a visit to the temple during Theemithi or any other day requires visitors to be dressed adequately with their knees and shoulders covered and footwear removed before entering.

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**I like to thank Suki Singh for providing shots of the fire pit preparations and Fire Walking ceremony.

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