Friday, May 22, 2009

Theemithi, The Fire-Walking Celebration

Like Kavadee and Sword-Climbing, Theemithi (Fire-Walking) is observed by Tamil Hindus and is characterised by rigorous fasting and penance. It is observed by the very young as well as by the very old, by men as well as by women.

The festival is generally held in December and January. The month and the date are fixed according to the Tamil calendar in consultation with the officiating priest of the temple. Sometimes a few ‘temple-regions’ may hold it in March or some other month. This is for the sake of keeping continuity with a regional practice that has become well-established.

Ten days preceding the festival, a flag-hoisting ceremony (‘kodi-etram’) is held in the temple. For this purpose a flag depicting a lion (‘singam’) is raised on the flag-post (‘kodi maram’) amidst chanting, recitation of prayers and shouts of ‘arogara’ (Hail to God or to Amman). The flag is then worshipped with offerings of sandalwood, coconut, fruit and burning of camphor, with devotees all the while reading appropriate verses from sacred books. The presiding deity of the temple can be one of the forms of ‘Amman’ (the Mother) — Kaali Amman, Maari Amman, Draupadee Amman, or Durga Amman — after whom the temple has been named. The ‘Amman~ is ceremoniously bathed and lavishly adorned. Devotional songs are intoned praising the various attributes of the Mother. Devotees throng to recite the ‘maari amman thaalaatu’ or the ‘lullaby song of the Mother’. Discourses are held to explain the meaning, significance and attributes of the Mother. ‘Prasadam’ (consecrated offerings).

The ‘kodi-étram’ signifies the start of a ten-day fast and prayers for all who take part in the ‘theemithi’ ceremony. Every evening devotees and members of their family gather at the temple to pray and to chant the glory of the ‘Amman’. During this period the penitent submits himself to a rigorous regime abstaining from fish, fowl meat, alcohol, cigarettes and other sensual gratifications. He sleeps on a mat spread on the floor at home. In this manner the penitent is purged of impurities. The removal of passion and desire helps him attain ‘one-pointedness’. Either theofficiating priest or someone competent is called upon to read from the ‘Mahabaratham’, the sacred Hindu epic. The appropriate chapter,‘Arjuna’s Penance’ (Arjuna’s thavam) is recited. Nowadays this is being replaced by devotional group singing by younger devotees.

On the day of the festival, devotees gather on the bank of a river close to the locality. After the ritual bath they put on the turmeric-coloured dresses in the traditional manner and smear the religious symbol of ‘pattai’ or three-fingered horizontal white marks on the forehead, shoulders, arms and torso. The females apply the ‘pattai’ to the forehead only. A small lemon is tied to the loins of each devotee. They now form themselves into a procession and leave the river bank and make for the temple by a pre-determined route. The ‘urvalam’ (procession) is headed by the officiating priest, who carries on his head a decorated brass pot (‘karagam’) and dances with joy at his meeting with the Mother. He is preceded by a group of youths with short sticks in their hands which they strike together rhythmically while another group provide the singing and music. This is called ‘kolaattam’. There is often a second group doing the ‘kummi’ by clapping their hands rhythmically. The young girls are clad beautifully in the traditional ‘paavaadai’. In the procession, individuals read out from ‘maariamman thaalaatu’ amidst shouts of ‘arogara’ (glory to God).

Slowly the procession reaches the temple yard where a pit generally 13 to 15 feet long and 5 feet broad, filled with glowing embers 6 inches deep has been prepared. The priest performs a ritual ceremony first to ward off any evil spirit that may disturb the ‘theemithi’ and then he tosses the garland from his neck into the pit to seek permission from the Mother to walk on her ‘saree’. satisfied, he first steps into the pit (‘kuzi’) amii chanting and shouts of ‘arogara’. He then sign to the other devotees. One by one each devot walks barefoot on the ‘thee’ (fire) in single fi Very often a woman devotee will walk the smoi dering path with her child in her arms. It reported that Mother Draupadee spreads out h ‘saree’ (vestment) over the glowing embers ai the devotee walks across the pit as on a woolli carpet. The ‘pit’ represents the ‘saree’ of tI ‘Amman’. In the case of Draupadee, the ‘Mah barata’ relates how Duchadhana tried to undraj her at the bidding of Druyodhana and how Loi Krishna came to her rescue.

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