By pure chance Nico and I found out about a firewalk of a Tamil community in Petite France. It is a Hindu ceremony, where penitents have to walk over red-hot coals. Temperatures are in between 240°C and 450°C and not all participants will get away without burnings. All fire walkers have to fast, pray and resign from sex for 18 days to purify body and soul. With adequate respect we mingled with the crowd and had an unforgettable night.
The peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures is unique to Réunion Island. It's a mixture of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. The Tamil diaspora is an ethnic group, coming from South India or North Sri Lanka. About 90% of the Tamils are Hindus.
After the first citizens came to Réunion Island during the 17th century, many Tamils were brought to the island as slaves. Religious ceremonies such as the firewalk were considered diabolic and therefore forbidden. After the abandon of slavery in 1848 all ethnic groups could return to their former religious habits. Although the Tamils came as slaves, nowadays there are schools teaching Tamil culture and language.
Before the actual firewalk there is a long ceremony that starts with a procession. The Tamils walk from door to door towards the temple, leaving offerings and a small fire in front of each house. We followed with a little distance.
Except from not wearing yellow robes, not being barefoot, not having indian heritage, we did not attract any attention at all. Despite that, Nico brought his big camera to make us look less like a tourist. Well, that's not the whole truth. We actually prepared for this occasion by wearing long trousers and shirts covering the shoulders paying respect to the religion. Of course we took our shoes off before entering the temple, but we felt like intruders and were in the role of observers. Beside us there were only a few other tourists and we did not know if we were welcome. But the Tamil community was really friendly and accepted us without hesitation.
During the procession the penitents got into trance. Drumming and religious chorus strengthened their state of mind. Women were not allowed to talk and had to wear cloth over their mouthes. Some had pierced their cheeks and tongues. Similar to the offerings at each house but in a larger scale, all offerings and firebowls were placed on the ground, once the procession had reached the temple.
The preparations for the firewalk were very complex. The coals have been lighted well in advance and were red-hot once the procession came to an end. Using a large trunk the coal bed got evened out to ensure a straight surface.
The preparation took almost one hour. Tons of flowers and fruits were spread around the coal basin. I have never seen that many flowers before. It all peaked in sacrificing a living cock and its blood was scattered over the flower leaves. I have to admit, I was shocked. The cock was really calm and did not fight at all which was a little confusing to me. I know that most Tamils are vegetarians, so I wonder what happened to the cock after the ceremony.
While the preparations of the coal basin came to an end, the procession group had entered the temple. Now the beats of the drums became even loader and faster and people started to dance around the temple.
The Tamil priest opened the firewalk with his own, slow walk over the red-hot coals. He was carrying flower chains, which he dropped in the middle of the basin. During the further progress he crossed the coals at least 4 times.
The priest rubbed every penitent with ointment in advance to their walk over the coals. It seems to be common usage that the priest pours a mixture of salt water und cow urine over each firewalker before his run. In our case the pouring was limited to the feet.
The ritual of firewalking takes place regularly to the honor of the god Pandalié. There are different versions of her legend. One says that by walking through the fire she was trying to proof her fidelity towards her husband Aldunin. Another version states that she became the wife of Arjuna, who had to share her with his 4 brothers. Every time she had to switch among them, she had to proof her virginity by a firewalk. You can choose which version you prefer.
Firewalking is a very old tradition and first evidences of its existence have been dated back to the year 1200 BC. It is spread all around the world and found in different ethnic groups. The walk over red-hot coals has a large variety of meanings and interpretations.
Although the different religious groups of La Réunion are living peacefully together, the hospital stuff of the island is not amused by the tradition of firewalking. Each person is granted with just one treatment for burnings form hot coals. If they get burned by firewalks more than once in their lifetime, they are rejected from hospital and have to treat themselves.
Despite their pain some of the firewalkers took their time to cover the distance. Others had to speed up to keep their feet from burning. There was no exception for women. They had to walk the same distance over the same hot coals.
At the end the coals were stirred up to raise the heat. Now the whole basin had a strong red glow. It was so incredible hot that even we, sitting meters away, started to sweat. Some of the firewalkers took their last great chance to get burned.
Once the last Tamil finished his run you could feel how the tension felt down from everyone. Everybody was cheering, singing, screaming and dancing around. The whole crowd started to circle the basins in jollity.
The Hinduism with its traditions is very different from what we are used to, but we really enjoyed this evening. Not only because it was interesting and stunning to watch, but far more because of the hospitality of the Tamil community. If you want to get an idea of what we have experienced, below you will find a little video from that night.
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