Noon in Singapore, October 2019. A busy street in Chinatown. A sidewalk that simultaneously captures and radiates the heat of the sun, creating a convection current that blasts with even brutality from every direction. When I first see the sign, I walk right by. Then I stop, sure that I’ve misread it. Living in Singapore, I’ve become inured to signs that warn of impending street closures for upcoming events. So I double back and confirm that, yes, South Bridge Road will close in a week for the annual Hindu fire walking ceremony known as Theemithi. I smile. Once again, to my delight, Singapore has caught me utterly and unforgivably off guard.
There are days when a walk in Singapore is just a walk. But there are better days when you happen past a doorway or an alley, or even a sign, that invites you to take an unexpected detour. There undoubtedly are places in the world where it would be best to think twice before proceeding. But if you’re in Singapore, think once, if you must. Then go. It’s always worth your while.
Theemithi is a Hindu rite in which male devotees walk through a firepit to honor the goddess Draupadi. Draupadi, the story goes, had remained righteous in the midst of great misfortune, going so far as to walk on fire to prove her virtue. The ritual is the pinnacle of two and a half months of activities that revolve around the reading of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. While Theemithi’s origins are in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil diaspora has carried the tradition abroad. In Singapore, the glowing embers mark the last three meters of a five-kilometer procession that begins at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, in Little India, and ends at Sri Mariamman Temple, in Chinatown.
Two Sunday evenings later, night has fallen but the temperature hasn’t. My husband and I are packed amid a crowd of sweaty onlookers like us, inside the compound walls of Sri Mariamman. While spectators are welcome at the Theemithi ceremony, they apparently are not welcome to witness the fire walking firsthand. Those of us here for curiosity’s sake stand, pressed against barricades erected to keep us in place, mere feet from a firepit we can’t see, staring expectantly at a large projection screen perched on the temple rooftop. We’ve all left our shoes among hundreds of other pairs on the sidewalk outside, confident that the goddess Mariamman, whose temple this is, will return ours to us when we leave. The floor of the compound feels wet and slick under our bare feet, and I’m grateful for once that it’s too crowded to see why.
Beside us, an alarmingly large tourist nests precariously atop a half-assembled scaffold, determined simultaneously to capture the perfect Instagram moment and put an end to his branch of the evolutionary tree. A woman in front of us faints from the heat and is lofted through the crowd toward an exit. A couple of backpackers, lost in more ways than one, wonder aloud whether fire walking is a regular occurrence in Singapore. With visual access at a premium, everyone jostles for a glimpse of whatever they can witness. I try to stretch every inch of my five-foot-tall frame, but my view is limited to the projection screen that looms overhead, echoed in phone screens held aloft by the crowd. I hate crowds, by the way. But I’m not about to leave.
As the fire walkers make their way from Little India, images on the projection screen alternate between coverage of the approaching procession and views of devotees preparing the firepit. We listen to their chanting, accompanied by drums and clapping that urge our beating hearts to match their tempo. The firepit, which had been blazing when we arrived, is now a bed of glowing, pulsating embers. It’s said that those embers become so hot that the adjacent temple walls need to be doused in water. If the ambient temperature is any indication, what’s said is true. We could stand a good dousing as well.
The momentum of the music and singing inside the temple compound reaches a fever pitch, matched by the growing cacophony outside as the procession arrives at the entrance. The doors open, allowing inside and outside to merge as the procession, led by the pandaram, or chief priest, heads for the firepit. Balancing a brightly decorated pot embodying Draupadi herself atop his head, the pandaram crosses first, followed by a seemingly endless stream of devotees. Without a moment’s hesitation, they each take their turn across the searing coals and into a secondary pit, where they literally cool their heels for a moment in a soothing bath of cow’s milk.
As powerful as the scene is, though, the numbing power of repetition grows stronger. In the course of an hour, we watch about fifty fire walkers. Over the past two weeks, I’ve learned enough to realize that, if the numbers are anything like previous years, there are several thousand to go. There were over 4,000 the year before.
A busy week looms, exerting a leaden gravity that drags us toward reality. Slowly, we wade through the stream of humanity that continues to flow into the compound, making our way to an opening in the surrounding wall. Back on the street, we find our shoes with surprising ease among the multitude piled beside the temple gate and give thanks to Mariamman for the favor.
We begin our walk home along streets that feel reassuringly cool. I ponder the irony of an event in which men walk on coals to honor a woman who walked on coals and soothe their burning feet in milk from a cow (also, obviously, a female). Mere blocks from the temple, the sights and sounds of Theemithi are all but gone. Our return journey is detour-free as secular Singapore reasserts itself, leaving little room for further pondering.
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The second Theemithi fire walking ceremony in Singapore since COVID-19 was scheduled to take place on Sunday, October 24, 2021. Due to COVID restrictions, as in 2020, there will be fewer devotees and no onlookers. You can, however, view the entire ceremony live or afterwards by visiting https://www.youtube.com/hinduendowmentsboard or https://www.facebook.com/hinduendowmentsboard.
Much more by this author on her very excellent web site, Rambling Llama.