Theemithi



Theemithi (also spelt Thimithi), or "firewalking", is a Hindu religious practice where devotees walk across a fire pit in exchange for a wish or blessing granted by the goddess Draupadi.1 Theemithi is part of a larger ceremony stretching over a two-and-a-half month period during which parts of the Mahabharata are re-enacted, totalling up to 18 distinguishable rites.2

History
Firewalking, a Hindu festival that originated in South India is practised by South Indians in India, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka as well as in countries that have a large population of South Indians. The goddess Draupadi is the heroine of the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit epics of South India, and is venerated as 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 this may allude to why Sri Mariamman Temple is the location for the annual firewalking ceremony in Singapore.3


Sri Mariamman Temple is also the oldest and largest Hindu temple in Singapore, and has been the venue for Theemithi since 1840.4 The firewalking ritual itself is actually a culmination of a five-kilometre walk that begins at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road.5 The reasons for starting at Perumal Temple is uncertain, although it has been suggested that the location is selected because of convenience.6

Legends
Theemithi is not just a single rite performed on a particular day. It is in fact the culmination of several religious rituals that re-enact important and auspicious events from the Mahabharata. Theemithi signifies the victory of a war in the Mahabharata that took place between two royal families, the Pandavas and Kauravas, with the former emerging victorious.7


Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava brothers, and the heroine of the epic, is portrayed as a woman who endures many misfortunes, but remains steadfast to the Hindu principles of righteousness and morality. Similarly, throughout the period of the reading of the Mahabharata, firewalkers and other devotees take on a strict vegetarian diet and abstain from any conjugal involvement.

Theemithi is celebrated on a Sunday before Deepavali ("Festival of Lights").9 According to the epic, Draupadi, who was gravely humiliated in a public arena by the Kauravas, vowed to leave her hair untied until her perpetrators were duly punished by her husbands. She combed her hair for the first time in 13 years upon seeing the dead bodies of the members of the Kaurava family.10

The grand finale of the victory was when Draupadi walked on fire, in a ceremony known as Theemithi, to prove her virtuousness and chastity by her adherence to dharma (the path of righteous living according to the codes of conduct stipulated in the Hindu scriptures11). Theemithi, which marks the Pandavas’ victory in the war against the Kauravas, is a re-enactment of the event. In present times, the walking of the pandaram (chief priest) across the fire with the karagam (a sacred, decorated pot),  is a symbolic depiction of  Draupadi being tested anew following her tribulations.12 Likewise, it is believed that if her devotees, are as virtuous as her, they will cross the coals unharmed.13

Rituals
Reading of the Mahabharata
The Theemithi cycle commences from the first Monday of the Tamil month of Aadi which falls around July and August. To commemorate this occasion, a flag with a picture of Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God and a representation of strength, is hoisted at Sri Mariamman Temple. From this day on, portions of the Tamil version of the Mahabaratha are recited each night until two days after Theemithi. The entire celebration of Theemithi and all other related events commences and ends at Sri Mariamman Temple. Daily prayers and fasting are necessary up to three weeks before the Theemithi ritual – a preparation and purifying process for the acolyte and devotees.14


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 (three-pronged spear) is placed near the sanctum of Aravan to symbolise the Battle of Kurushektra.15

Battle of Kurushektra

This commemorates the 18-day battle that culminates in the Pandavas' victory.16 At the final stages of battle, the king of Dwarka (a city located in the state of Gujarat, north-west India), Lord Krishna, who was a powerful incarnation of Lord Vishnu agrees to be Arjuna's charioteer.17 To mark this occasion, on the Friday and Saturday prior to Theemithi, a chariot procession takes place around Telok Blangah and Bukit Merah.18

Keesaka Samharam

Held almost a month before Theemithi, Keesaka Samharam is a significant ritual portraying the slaying of Keesaka, who was the commander-in-chief and brother-in-law of King Virata of Matsya (a kingdom in ancient India). In his attempts to seduce Draupadi, Keesaka gets killed by Bheema, one of the Pandava brothers.19

Preparation before Theemithi
Ten days prior to the firewalking ceremony, devotees offer their prayers by carrying milk pots, and the women perform kumbiduthandam (the act of prostrating after walking every three steps).20 The angaprathatchanam (prostration by rolling one’s body) is also performed, but this is done by male devotees only.21 For the angaprathatchanam, the men strip down to their dhoti (a traditional garment worn by male Hindus, which comprises a long piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs), and roll across the grounds of Sri Mariamman Temple, circling the area for one to three laps of 150 m per round.22


Theemithi ceremony
A fire pit measuring approximately 3 m in length is dug within the compound of Sri Mariamman Temple.23 At the end of the pit which holds the burning coals, a smaller pit is also dug for the milk to be poured into.24 The fire pit is lit by the chief priest with sandalwood pieces. After initial prayers, a yellow string with some turmeric and a spray of margosa, or neem leaf, is attached to the wrists of all those taking part in the firewalking ceremony.25

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.26 Previously, there was a penance ritual involving the use of the chaattai (whip), during which the firewalkers’ hands would be whipped before they proceeded to Sri Mariamman Temple for the firewalk, but this practice has since been banned.27 

At 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.28 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.29 Milk is sacred to Hindus as it is produced by the cow – a revered animal in Hinduism.30 The fire in the pit is later extinguished with milk and water sprayed from a firehose.31

In 1997, about 2,500 persons did the firewalking ritual with about 10 percent of them being Chinese.32 Typically, more than 20,000 would turn up for the other penance rituals, which start several weeks before the firewalking.33 In 2015, over 4,000 devotees participated in Theemithi.34

After the firewalking ceremony, there will be a silver chariot procession of Sri Draupadi Amman in the evening that stops at the following places for devotees to offer prayers: Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple (Keong Siak Road), Sri Krishnan Temple (Waterloo Street), Little India Arcade (Serangoon Road), Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple (Serangoon Road), Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple (Serangoon Road), and Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple (Serangoon Road).35 Although firewalking is the apex of the whole ceremony, the Theemithi cycle only comes to a complete close two days later. On this day, 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.36



Author

Suchitthra Vasu




References
1. Lee, T. (1995, October 6). Test of faith to draw over 2,000. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 1, 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
3. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 1, 2–3. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
4. Penance an act of faith and courage. (1998, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 28; Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27; 2,512 devotees to walk on fire. (1997, October 24). The Straits Times, p. 32; Hindu fire-walkers urged to perform rites earlier. (1997, October 10). The Straits Time, p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sanmugam, E., et al. (Eds.). (2009). Sacred sanctuary: The Sri Mariamman Temple. Singapore: Sri Mariamman Temple, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 294.535095957 SAC-[SRN])
5. Lee, T. (1995, October 6). Test of faith to draw over 2,000. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 22. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
7. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 28–29. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA]); Singapore fire-walking ceremony tomorrow. (1937, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 28–31. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SRN])
9. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 12. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SRN]); Firewalkers fulfil vows despite rain. (1989, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 19; 800 in fire-walking ceremony. (1978, October 24). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hindu Endowments Board. (2014). Hindu festivals. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Hindu Endowments Board website: https://heb.org.sg/hindu-resources/hindu-festivals.aspx
10. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 19. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA]); Indian Mirror. (2017). Siginificance of fire walking. Retrieved 2017, February 17 from Indian Mirror website: http://www.indianmirror.com/culture/indian-folklore/Fire-Walking.html
11. Das, S. (2016, October 5). What is dharma? Retrieved 2017, February 17 from About.com website: http://hinduism.about.com/od/basics/a/dharma.htm
12. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 22–23, 24–25. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA]); Hindu’s fire-walking ordeal. (1930, October 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 24–25, 30. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
14. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle.  Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 5, 6, 9, 31. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA]); Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
15. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 9. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
16. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 12. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB); Hindu’s fire-walking ordeal. (1930, October 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Das, S. (2016, May 12). Who is Krishna? Retrieved 2017, February 17 from About.com website: http://hinduism.about.com/od/lordkrishna/a/krishna.htm; Battle between right and wrong. (1986, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ancient Origins. (2015, October 18). Dwarka: The home of Krishna is a gateway to heaven and an underwater city. Retrieved 2017, February 17 from Ancient Origins website: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/dwarka-home-krishna-gateway-heaven-and-underwater-city-004227
18. Colourful chariot procession takes Hindu deity to devotees in various districts. (1994, October 23). The Straits Times, p. 22; Lee, T. (1995, October 6). Test of faith to draw over 2,000. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Indian Mirror. (2017). Siginificance of fire walking. Retrieved 2017, February 7 from Indian Mirror website: http://www.indianmirror.com/culture/indian-folklore/Fire-Walking.html; Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle.Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 11. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-{SEA]); Mahabharata – Part 14. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.saiaustin.org/BALA%20VIKAS%20LESSONS/Mahabharata_Part_14.pdf; The Mahabharata: Section XXII. (2010). Internet Sacred Text Archive. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m04/m04022.htm; Hindu Endowments Board. (2014). Fire walking festival 2016. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Hindu Endowments Board website: https://heb.org.sg/fw2016.aspx
20. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 17, 18. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-SEA]); Hindu fire-walkers urged to perform rites earlier. (1997, October 10). The Straits Time, p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Lee, T. (1995, October 6). Test of faith to draw over 2,000. The Straits Times, p. 28; Hindu fire-walkers urged to perform rites earlier. (1997, October 10). The Straits Time, p. 52; Simon, S. (1987, October 14). Paying homage to a goddess. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27; Simon, S. (1987, October 14). Paying homage to a goddess. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 17. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-{SEA])
23. Morning fire walking this year. (1999, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 53; Retrieved from NewspaperSG. National Heritage Board. (2015, June 26). Sri Mariamman Temple. Retrieved 2017, February 7 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/sri-mariamman-temple
24. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 22. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
25. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 21, 22. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
26. Morning fire walking this year. (1999, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 53; Penance an act of faith and courage. (1998, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 28; Lee, T. (1995, October 6). Test of faith to draw over 2,000. The Straits Times, p. 28; Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 22. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
27. Morning fire walking this year. (1999, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 53; Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 21–22. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
28. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 23, 24. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
29. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 24. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB); Singapore fire-walking ceremony tomorrow. (1937, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Srivatsa. (1987, October 16). You name it, it’s from the epics. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, p. 24. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])
32. Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Leong, W. K. (1998, October 8). Walking on fire for his dead parents. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Fire-walking ceremony Thimithi in Singapore. (2015, November 2). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
35. Hindu Endowments Board. (2014). Fire walking festival 2016. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Hindu Endowments Board website: https://heb.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Firewalking_2016.pdf
36. Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore, pp. 26–28. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.538 BAB-[SEA])



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.

 

Subject
Philosophy, psychology and religion>>Religion>>Hinduism
Events
Customs
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
People and communities>>Customs
Hinduism--Rituals
Heritage and Culture
Fire walking--Singapore
Fire--Religious aspects--Hinduism
Timiti (Hindu rite)