India – a land of diverse and rich culture, a land of old traditions and mythical legends, a land where thousands of rituals are performed, many with reasons, many for faith. While some of the ancient rituals have died over a period of time, there are few which are still carried out even today in its true spirit with faith and lot of enthusiasm. One such ritual is Fire Walking, wherein people walk barefoot over a bed of hot embers or stones.
Fire walking is an ancient ritual that dates back to the Iron Age India. As such, it is practiced in many cultures across the globe. However, in India, we can witness the faith it carries and the religious significance in Thimithi festival which is celebrated in South India. It’s an emblem of victory of Pandavas over Kauravas in Mahabharata.
The legendary epic tells the saga of great Draupadi, wherein she was tormented and humiliated by her brother-in-laws in the King’s court. Although, she was rescued by Lord Krishna, she vowed to tie her hair only once she had washed them with the blood of Duryodhana – her brother-in-law. Ultimately Kauravas were defeated in the battle of Mahabharata and Draupadi could fulfil her vow. Once the war was over she walked through the bed of fire to prove her chastity and came out unharmed, glowing as a morning dew. The festival of fire walking is observed in her honour to remember her suffering while on the path of righteousness.
During celebration of Thimithi Festival, various scenes from Mahabharata are enacted. A week before the actual fire walking, the male devotees begin offering puja and prayers to Goddess. The grand prayer is held on the day of the festival, urging the goddess to shower her blessings upon her loyal devotees. In the evening, the male devotees walk through the fire bed which is prepared and kept burning through the night. People believe that if you are a true devotee of Draupadi, you will come out of fire unharmed.
Fire walking is also considered as a test of one’s courage and strength and his ability to focus on mind over matter. Many social theorists believed that such bizarre rituals persist in India as they serve the function of social cohesion or team building. A research suggests that such collective religious rituals thrive on physiological foundation. They align the emotional states of the ritual performers and in turn strengthens group dynamics. It is for such reasons that fire walking today is practiced in self-help workshops for confidence building and in corporate for team building.