Theemithi (also spelt Thimithi), or "firewalking", is a Hindu religious vow in which the devotee promises to walk on fire in exchange for a wish or blessing granted by the goddess Draupadi. Theemithi is part of a larger ceremony stretching over a two-and-a-half month period during which parts of the Mahabharata is reenacted, totalling up to 18 distinguishable rites.

Firewalking is an international Hindu festival that originated in South India. It is practised wherever there are South Indians; besides India and Singapore, it is also carried out in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Réunion and South Africa. The goddess Draupadi is the heroine of the Mahabharata and is a common village goddess, or amman (mother goddess). She presides over firewalking in South Indian rituals just like Mariamman who is the principal goddess of Sri Mariamman Temple, and may be one of the reasons why Sri Mariamman Temple is the location for the firewalking ceremony in Singapore. Sri Mariamman Temple is also the oldest and largest Hindu temple in Singapore and Theemithi has been practised there since 1840. The firewalking is actually a culmination of a four-kilometre walk that begins at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road. The reasons for starting at Perumal Temple is uncertain, although it has been suggested that the location is selected because of convenience. Another possible reason is that Lord Srinivasa Perumal is the elder brother of Mariamman, who blesses her devotees before they begin their route to Sri Mariamman Temple.

Theemithi is not just a single ritual performed on a particular day. It is in fact the culmination of several religious rituals that reenact important and auspicious events from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Theemithi signifies the victory of a war in the Mahabharata that took place between two families, the Pandavas and Kauravas, with the Pandavas emerging victorious.

Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava brothers, and the heroine of the epic, is portrayed as a person who endures many misfortunes but holds on steadfastly to dharma, Hindu principles and morality. Similarly, throughout the period of the reading of the Mahabharata, the firewalkers and other devotees make sacrifices such as taking on a strict vegetarian diet and abstaining from any conjugal involvement. 

Theemithi is celebrated on the Sunday about 10 to 12 days before Deepavali ("Festival of Lights"). According to the epic, Draupadi, on seeing the dead bodies of the members of the Kaurava family, combs her hair for the first time in 13 years. The grand finale of the victory is when Draupadi walks on fire, a process known as Theemithi, to prove her virtuosity and chastity by her adherence to dharma. Theemithi, which marks this victory of the war with the Kauravas, is a reenactment of the event. During the ritual, as the pandaram (chief priest) walks across the fire with the karagam (a sacred, decorated pot), Draupadi is thus tested anew. Likewise, her devotees, if they are as pure as her, will cross the coals unharmed.

Reading of the Mahabharata
The Theemithi cycle commences from the first Monday of the Tamil month of Adi which falls around July and August. To commemorate this occasion a flag is hoisted at Sri Mariamman Temple. This flag is that of Hanuman, the Monkey God, who symbolises strength. From this day on, portions of the Tamil version of the Mahabaratha is read each night until two days after Theemithi. The entire celebration for the Theemithi cycle and all other related events commences and ends at this temple. Daily prayers and fasting are necessary up to three weeks before the Theemithi ritual – a preparation and purifying process for the acolyte.

Aravan Puja
On the first Monday before the new moon in the Tamil month of Purattasi, which falls between September and October, the Tamils conduct the Aravan Puja, or "prayers for Aravan". These prayers are done in honour of Arjuna's son, Aravan, who sacrificed himself to the goddess Kali to ensure victory for the Pandavas. The head of Aravan is displayed to symbolise the sacrifice and a trident is placed near the sanctum of Aravan to symbolise the Battle of Kurushektra.

Keesaka Samharam
After the Pandavas return from exile, they work incognito for another king known as the Matsyan king. Keesaka, the commander-in-chief and brother of the queen, attempts to seduce Draupadi. The ceremony that marks the slaying of Keesaka by Bheeman, one of the Pandava brothers, is known as Keesaka Samharam. This ceremony is held on the Saturday night after another ritual, Arjunan Thabasu. Ten days prior to the firewalking ceremony, devotees offer their prayers by carrying milk pots, and the women perform the kumbiduthandam (the act of prostrating after every three steps). The angaprathatchanam (rolling prostration) is also performed, but only by male devotees. For the angaprathatchanam, the men strip down to their dhoti and roll on the temple grounds, circling the area for one to three laps of 150 m per round.

Battle of Kurushektra
This commemorates the 18-day battle that culminates in the Pandavas' victory. At this juncture, Lord Krishna agrees to be Arjuna's charioteer. To mark this occasion, on the Friday and Saturday prior to Theemithi a chariot procession takes place around Telok Blangah and Bukit Merah.

Theemithi ceremony
A fire pit about 2.7 m in length is dug at Sri Mariamman Temple. At the end of the pit is a smaller pit where milk is poured into. The fire pit is lit with sandalwood pieces by the chief priest. After some initial prayers a yellow string with some turmeric and a spray of margosa, or neem leaf, is attached to the wrist of all those taking part in the firewalking ceremony. The firewalkers, solely men, then do a customary five-kilometre walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Road. Previously, there was a penance ritual involving the use of the chattai (whip), whereby the acolytes' hands would be whipped before they proceeded to Sri Mariamman Temple for the firewalk, but this practice has been banned. 

At the Sri Mariamman Temple, firewood stacked in pits specially dug out for the firewalk are ignited. Thereafter, the fire is sustained, sometimes reaching such high temperatures that the temple walls need to be cooled with water. The Theemithi ceremony begins with the chief priest crossing the fire pit first with a karagam balanced on his head. The devotees follow across the three-metre-long pit and then cool their feet in a pool of cow's milk at the end of the walk. Milk is sacred to Hindus as it comes from the cow, which is regarded as a sacred animal. The fire is extinguished with milk and water from a firehose at Sri Mariamman.

In 1997, about 2,500 persons did the firewalking ritual with up to 20 of them being Chinese. Typically, more than 20,000 would turn up for the penance rituals, which start several weeks before the firewalking. Over 4,000 devotees participated in firewalking during the 2015 Theemithi festival.

After this ceremony, there is a chariot procession in the evening. Although firewalking is the apex of the whole ceremony, the Theemithi cycle only comes to a close two days later. The final chapter of the Mahabharata is read and the victory of the war is depicted by the lowering of the battle flag and the crowning of Yudishtra, the eldest Pandava brother.

Suchitthra Vasu

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The information in this article is valid as at 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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