Firewalking demands spiritual cleansing and courage

2010-04-03 00:00

KRISH Govender is an unassuming 70-year-old, with a quiet manner and grey hair, but this afternoon his face and body will be pierced with long hooks before he walks over an eight- metre pit of burning coals.

The Pietermaritzburg truck driver led around 400 people in the yearly Hindu rite of firewalking at the Sri Siva Soobramaniar and Marriamen Temples in Langalibalele Street yesterday.

Thimithi, a South Indian Hindu festival, is celebrated in only four temples in KwaZulu-Natal. The annual firewalk at the Marriamen temple is the largest celebration, which has been observed for over 100 years.

For 10 days devotees like Govender have abstained from earthly pleasures, like eating meat or drinking alcohol, in order to become pure and worthy to walk across the fire.

“It’s a 10-day fast that involves being in the temple regularly, fasting, being very clean and very devoted,” said Govender.

Govender has been visiting the temple twice daily in preparation for the event. Speaking in calm tones, he described the devotion required to lead the procession of firewalkers.

“You must be a very calm and timid person. You cannot lose your temper or get arrogant or something like that. It’s a very trying period for those nine days,” he said.

Religious leaders and devotees agree that failure to observe a pure fast will result in a firewalker being burned as he or she crosses the glowing embers of the fire pit.

Govender has the added responsibility of leading the throng of worshippers, which he describes as a spiritual undertaking.

“Sometimes people slip and get a little temperamental, but I cannot afford to. My mood has changed, I am very different. Here you cannot afford to lose yourself.”

The festival, which is mainly observed by South Indians, pays reverence to the goddess Draupadi — or “Mother” — whom Hindus believe was born from the ashes of one of her father’s sacrificial fires.

Govender explained that “deliverance” from the piercings and fire isignifies the Mother’s acceptance and appreciation.

Devotees have brought offerings of milk, fruit and incense to the Mother’s temple over the past 10 days. Yesterday, they gathered at the river on Prince Alfred Street for ceremonial washing. From there, pierced firewalkers and their families followed Govender to the temple.

“We walk around the fire pit once, and then stand at the end of the pit,” said Govender. “That’s when the fear gets into you really, because when you are going around the pit first you realise that in a few seconds’ time you’re going to walk through the fire and that’s a really big test.”

Many firewalkers said they are in a trance when they are pierced and walk over the fire. One described the trance as “the power of a deity overwhelming you and allowing you to do the ritual”.

Govender said that since his first firewalk in 1989, he has all his wits about him as he performs the ceremony. “I enter into this thing with all my senses,” he said. “This is something I do with my own faith. I feel every prick and burn.”

Despite the spiritual euphoria of the act, Govender said the physical pain of bare feet on hot coals is real.


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