It was evident that something unusual was afoot as I walked toward Chinatown and smoke drifted across South Bridge Road, muting the colorful shophouses in the distance. It was 5:30 p.m. when I arrived at Sri Mariamman temple for Theemithi, or the Firewalking Ceremony. Dull clouds and rumbling thunder added uncertainty to the atmosphere as I removed my shoes and prepared to step inside the temple.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Theemithi, but the reality was suddenly in front of me as I followed a single-file procession of people into the temple. The one-lane roped path turned left, then right, and I found myself face-to-face with the massive bonfire that would slowly, over the next several hours, burn down to a bed of hot coals four meters long. I continued on the path, feeling the fire’s radiant heat, as the smoke drifted into me, my eyes burning. The path turned right, away from the fire, and spit me out at an open-air courtyard where light rain was falling.
Gobsmacked, I stood and looked around me. I had just seen the fiery heart of Theemithi within one minute of my first time inside the Sri Mariamman temple. I hadn’t expected to see the fire so closely or be allowed to view the preparations first-hand. But that’s what I find so compelling about Hindu ceremonies in Singapore — if you show up with respectful curiosity, you are rewarded with fascinating opportunities to watch and learn.
I stood for a long time and observed the activity around me as people started packing into the covered halls of the temple, finding their places to watch the ceremony. I squeezed into a spot below an exquisite mandala painted on the temple’s ceiling and waited for the ceremony to begin. Women were dressed in spectacular color, with bright gold and sparkling crystals adorning their necks, earlobes, wrists and ankles. I could see glimpses of the fire — still raging with orange flames whipping into the air as men cooled the temple wall near the fire with a water hose. I surmised the firewalking was still a couple hours away, and with so much happening around the temple I couldn’t resist deserting my post to see what was happening elsewhere.
I exited the temple, went around to the entrance to walk another lap past the fire, got caught in a dead-end mob as the temple entrance was closed temporarily, squished my way back through the crowd, walked down Pagoda Street, circled back on Mosque Street, and finally emerged at South Bridge Road. The crowd had multiplied and navigating the scene was getting much more difficult. I had been at the temple for about three hours and decided it might be easiest to go home and watch the temple’s streaming video of the ceremony online (how convenient!). But wait! The entrance was open again. Curiosity unsatisfied, I dove in for one more lap.
Shoes off and walking the path again, the buzz in the temple was now a palpable rush of adrenaline and anticipation as men flattened the fire to a red-hot smoldering blanket. The path led me back to the temple courtyard — this time packed with spectators. With no clear view of the firewalking from where I stood, I exited the temple and went to the street to watch the arrival of the firewalkers along South Bridge Road.
Firewalkers practice vegetarianism and fasting rituals for several weeks before Theemithi. On the night of the walk, they take ritual baths and then walk barefoot from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to Sri Mariamman temple (about four kilometers). On arrival at the temple they gather at one end of the firepit and walk across the coals, one by one. If a firewalker’s devotion to Hindu goddess Draupati Amman is absolute (in whose honor the ceremony is held), he will emerge from the firewalk unscathed.
A quartet of drums and horns kicked into a crescendo of music as police stopped traffic on South Bridge Road. Bare-chested with orange kaavi mundus around their waists, dozens of firewalkers chanted as they walked past me and entered the temple. With activity at fever pitch and no chance to get a good view of the ceremony that late into the proceedings, I hopped a cab on New Bridge Road and went home to watch the firewalking online.
One by one, the barefoot firewalkers crossed the hot coals — some of them running fast with fear and others stepping slowly with miraculous tolerance. Two men waited at the end of the pit, helping the firewalkers step out of the coals and into a trough filled with milk, then back onto the temple ground. When a path across the firepit became worn, the coals were raked to even out the surface and the firewalking resumed. The ceremony continued into the night, with hundreds of men crossing the fire in a unique act of devotion — a triumph of mind over matter, faith over doubt.
No doubt, I will return next year and watch again.