Theemithi (Thimithi) or "firewalking" is done as part of a 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 where parts of the Mahabharata is re-enacted, totalling up to 18 distinguishable rites.
Firewalking is an international Hindu festival which originated in South India. It is practised not only in India and Singapore but even in South Africa and wherever there are South Indians. 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 also happens to be the oldest and largest Hindu temple in Singapore and Theemithi has been practised here since 1840. The firewalking is actually a culmination of a four-kilometre walk that begins at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road. The reasons for starting at the Perumal Temple is uncertain although it is suggested that the location is selected solely for convenience.
In 1997, about 2,500 persons turned up for the firewalking ritual with up to 10 percent of them being Chinese. More than 20,000 would turn up for the penance rituals, starting several weeks before the firewalking.
Theemithi is not just a single ritual performed on a particular day. It is in fact the culmination of several religious rituals which re-enacts important and auspicious events from the Hindu epic -- the Mahabaratha. Theemithi signifies the victory of a war in the Mahabaratha that took place between two families, the Pandavas and Kauravas, with the Pandavas emerging victorious.
Draupadi, wife of Pandavas, 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 Mahabharatha, the fire walkers and other devotees make sacrifices such as taking on a strict vegetarian diet and abstaining from any conjugal involvement.
Theemithi is celebrated at dawn always on the Monday before Deepavali (the 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 was when Draupadi walks on fire, a process known as Theemithi, to prove her virtuosity and chastity by her adherence to dharma. It is this victory of the war with the Kauravas that is marked by Theemithi. The theemit re-enacts this event as the pandaram (chief priest) walks across the fire with the karakam (a sacred, decorated pot) the goddess inside is thus tested anew. Likewise, her devotees, if they are as pure as Draupadi, will cross the coals unharmed.
Reading of the Mahabharatha
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 on the flag staff at the Sri Mariamman Temple. This flag is that of Arjuna with a picture of Hanuman, the Monkey God, symbolising strength. From this day on, the portions of the Tamil version of the Mahabaratha is read each night until two days after Theemithi The entire celebrations 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.
On the first Monday before the new moon in the Tamil month of Purattasi, falling between September and October, the Tamils conduct the Aravan Puja or "Prayers for Aravan". This prayer is in honour of Arjuna's son , Aravan, who sacrificed himself to Goddess Kali to ensure the victory for the Pandavas. The head of Aravan is displayed to symbolise the sacrifice and a trident is placed at the altar of Aravan signifying the Battle of Kurushektra.
After the Pandavas return from exile, they work incognito for another king known as the Matsyan king. Keesaka the commander-in-chief, attempted to seduce Draupadi. Keesaka Samharam is the name given to another ceremony which marks the slaying of Keesaka by Bheeman, one of the Pandava brothers. This ceremony is held on the Saturday night before the Theemithi ceremony which falls on the following Monday. Two days prior to firewalking, the kumbuduthandam, an act of penance is performed. The devotee strips down and rolls around the temple grounds up to three laps of 150 m per round.
Battle Of Kurushektra
This commemorates the 18-day battle which culminates in the Pandavas victory. At this juncture, Lord Krishna agreed 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.
The Theemithi ceremony
A fire pit is dug which is about 2.7 m in length at the 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 prayer 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. About 2,000 fire walkers, solely men, do a customary five-kilometre walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road. The acolytes hands are whipped before they proceed to Sri Mariamman Temple for the firewalk.
At the Sri Mariamman Temple, firewood stacked in pits specially dug out for the firewalk are ignited. Thereafter, the fire seems to burn on its own, often 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 karakam, a sacred, decorated pot balanced on his head. The devotees would then 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 sacred animal, the cow. It seems that the milk helps cool the feet of the devotees. The fire is also extinguished with the milk and water from a firehose at Sri Mariamman.
Following this ceremony, there is yet another chariot procession in the evening. Though firewalking is the apex of the whole ceremony, the Theemithi cycle only comes to a close two days later. The final chapter of the Mahabaratha 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.
Babb, L. A. (1974). Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle. Singapore: Dept. of Sociology, University of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING 294.538 BAB)
Lipsner, J. (1994). Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practice (pp. 199-213). London, New York: Routledge.
(Call no.: R 294.5 LIP)
Morning fire walking this year. (1999, September 24). The Straits Times, Home, p. 53.
Penance an act of faith and courage. (1998, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 28.
Test of faith to draw over 2,000. (1995, October 6). The Straits Times, p. 28.
Walking on fire for his dead parents. (1998, October 8). The Straits Times, p. 27.
Hindu Endowments Board. (2001, October-December). Festivals-Theemithi. Singapore Hindu Online, 13(4). Retrieved October 13, 2003, from www.heb.gov.sg/hinduonline/2001oct-dec/02-festivals.html
The information in this article is valid as at 1998 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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