In these blue hills, there are water-replenishing Shola forests that meander alongside the waterways with fat-cat-sized Malabar squirrels that bound along the treetops. There are mixed morning sounds of church bells, a Call to Prayer, and temple chimes – a harmony to be rendered by the followers who listen. There are tiny filter coffee shops, no names necessary, with quiet thathas who grab, with bare hands, the searing tin containers of boiling milk and pour into coffee powder at arm’s width high, over and over again, until the mixture is perfect and well oxygenized. And there are festivals, numerous festivals!
One such festival was the Fire Walking Ceremony – Jedayasamy Habba or Jakkanarai Kenda Habba – that takes place every year in one villages of the Badaga community (one of the indigenous peoples of the Nilgiri Hills) called Jakanarai. Walking on fire is precisely the activity. Several men from these villages voluntarily prepare for the ceremony 6 months in advance by walking every day and everywhere without shoes, encouraging the soles of the feet to become thickened like leather. The purpose of the fire walk is that they must walk, not run or quickly step, but walk barefoot across burning coals. It is a way of pride among the hunter gatherer communities. For those who walk, it is a means to elevate yourself from the human level to the spiritual level, a means to connect closer to god by doing what should be considered humanly impossible.
I, along with several others, were welcomed as guests to this ceremony. Upon arriving to the village, Gokul (a friend, coworker, and member of the Badaga community) brought us to a relative’s house where we were warmly greeted and offered surplus amounts of snacks and tea. Then slowly we made our way along the winding path of multi-colored pastel homes, conjoined wall by wall and with short staircases that lead from one roof to the next path. The way suddenly dipped down a steep concrete slope that spliced through the middle of a tea field and lead to the festival grounds. Once on the flat grassy space my eyes were instantly enthused by the sight – the majority of the Badaga community were wearing white (as a formal garb and regard towards the ceremony), merchants sitting on plastic tarps were shoveling puri/pori into plastic bags and yelling “Vanga!” in a guttural tone, vendors walked around with small potable freezer chests filled with ice cream and chimed “Ice Cream!” in a lighter intonation. We, as outsiders, went and stood off on the sidelines underneath a tree and waited patiently to gather towards the coals when the ceremony was soon to commence. I noticed to the left several people gathered by a stream where there were a few crying babes and shivering children draped in the drenched white cloths their mothers provided. Turns out these kind of ceremonies also afford the opportunity to shave the heads of young toddlers or kids and then wash them thoroughly, as is tradition.
Finally we were urged towards the epicenter where on the side people smooshed on to the steps like sardines so we chose to sit by the edge on the grass but in full view of the smoldering coals. Clouds were rolling in. Dozens of men wearing starch white mundu/dhoti hovered around the coal path while a few tended to it. One man bore a long stick and kept gently raking the coals as the burning piles kept being administered by the temple. Two other men held fist tight to a thick bundle of leaves and energetically kept waving at the coal bed. These spurts of wind gave life to the coal, which would shorting burst with licking flames. The path looked to be mere black rocks on top but was ablaze and hidden below.
The crowd kept pressing in and chatter increased as more people began to gather towards the fire path. Suddenly there was music. The shrill whistling of a trumpet like instruments and the rhythmic beating of drums led a procession of several who swayed and stepped to the beat. The musicians were from the Kurumba tribe; they come every year honored guests and participants. A day prior to the festival they will arrive and light the ceremonial fire for the festival, the fire that will continue to be fed and soon add heat to the coals. The Badagas are a community that adopted several traditions from the surrounding tribes, and from the Kurumbas there learned how to make fire from stones – hence one of the reasons why the Kurumbas are held in respect as well as connected to this festival. They also accompany the fire walkers into the forest the night before. To keep the wild animals at bay the Kurumbas gather a certain plant with which they mark the parameter of the camp… now back to the scene of the festival.
The men parading behind the music being played (“Ara-Kol”) were the fire walkers. Some carried an ornate umbrella that were rich in color and decoration, and varied in size and length. These umbrellas were the symbols of the Badaga community and each one represented the different villages and their fire walkers that were present. The musical leaders walked slowly with their contagious tempo, continuously circling the coal path as if to call the embers to life. And the waiting fire walkers followed behind; heightening their excitement with the pounding of the instruments, the raising voices of the expectant, and the spray of heat being flung towards them by the coal fanners as they kept walking around their destined path. Before the walk had commenced, the men had swallowed a thread lit on fire so with it they could also swallow their fear of the upcoming event. The coals had also been heaped with the Billi (rhododendron) because it is a pure flower – the bees do not even touch it for harvesting – and thus it contributes to the purity of the coals. By now the parade had circled the fire and temple twice and they had one more lap to go to complete the three rounds.
The clouds were thickening. There was a distant roll of thunder that was slow approaching. The coal path was still spitting orange flames with each brush stroke of quick fanning. The jubilation was raising exponentially with the buzz of anticipation and the monotone, wordless mantra being sung to stir the excitement. These sounds amplified as the time to walk came closer and closer, yet at the same time the thunder rolled closer overhead and threatened to open its flood gates. Nonetheless the noise did not dull or cool; it only livened more with each thrashing stroke of the leaf bundle against the coals and circling musicians-flamewalkers-edgeofcrowd closing in closer to the path. Our eyes were peeled towards the anticipation of scene ahead yet our skin prickled with the anticipation of the heavens to release.
And then it sprinkled. Miniscule droplets bounced off of skin and lightly misted on the dense crowd. But are the coals still hot?! Yes, yes the heat is still being flung in the face of the walkers. But when will they walk?! Soon, very soon. The afternoon light, earlier that had been bright and hot, was now thickly shrouded by clouds and gave the space around us somewhat of a glow. The clouds increased. The electricity in the air increased. The anticipation increased.
Then the roar of the crowd went to its full climax. It finally began. The fire walkers began to walk, barefoot and with a firm easy strut, across the still searing coals. They went one by one – some were stoic in their manner, others did a 360 turn to demonstrate their prowess to the crowd, and some held the precious umbrella that represented their village. The drizzle turned into a consistent rain. The men kept walking and dozens had crossed by this point. The crowd was still roaring, exhilarated by the scene; and slowly extra shawls began to be held overhead, making a large disfigured blanket from aerial view – meager attempt to withstand the rain.
Then it began to pour and the walk of fire was completely drenched by the cascade of rain. The roar of the crowd transposed to shouts of joy. Why joy? Because for months the Blue Hills had thirsted for water when the promise of rain did not come during the monsoon season. Because crops were drying, one too many places were having to buy water or strictly ration it, and political relations between states were tense. The rain poured with full force and all attendants looked as if they had gone for a swim, and these same people beamed. Nivas (Gokuls cousin) rushed over with a handful of ash from the coal path (somehow still dry) and bestowed it like a bindi on our foreheads. It was a blessing. We laughed at the irony and the spectacle of the drenched landscape, clambered with the elated crowd away from the cooled coals, and sloshed through the sudden stream running down the path that lead us back to the village.
Once we had made it to the top of the path and were soaked to the bone and it was still raining, we did the only sensible thing to do – we got ice cream. Completely in merriment we stood in the pouring rain while scarfing down mostly artificial ice cream bars – because what better way was there to celebrate the joy of such an occasion?