FIREWALKING IN THE LAND OF LIGHTENING
The following is an account written in 1983 of an experience I had in
a Hindu ceremony in Malaysia. The relevance to the Eleusinian
Mysteries is that a person may be brought to an experience of
ecstasy by engaging in ritual behavior.
FIREWALKING IN THE LAND OF LIGHTNING
On the summer solstice of 1982, a day deemed especially auspicious
by Hindu astrologers, I And nine others walked - or rather sprinted -
across a twenty-eight foot long pit of burning charcoal. This occurred
in a firewalking ceremony at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple
located in the Kuala Pertang Estate, approximately seven miles south
of Kuala Krai, Kelantan, Malaysia. Temple officials told me that I was
the first Caucasian to firewalk in Malaysia.
I had arrived in Malaysia in 1980 as a Peace Corps volunteer And
assigned to work as a psychologist in Kota Bharu, Kelantan.
Kelantan, whose name means Land of Lightning, is a poor, rural state
in northern Malaysia bordering Thailand. Heat lightning rips through
the night skies throughout the year. While the psychiatric unit
operated under a western model of medicine, the vast majority of the
patients had sought assistance from traditional healers known as
bomoh-bomoh before their entrance to the psychiatric ward. Hospital
staff And neighbors introduced me to the bomoh-bomoh, And
traditional rites of healing. Friends And neighbors invited me to a
variety of cultural activities. From these, I was able to observe
hundreds of persons in trance states. In early June 1982, a friend
told me of a firewalk that was to occur. On my next day off, he took
me by motorbike to the Mariamman Temple.
I met with members of the temple committee And explained my
interest in the Thimithi (firewalking) festival. After a short time, the
temple secretary said: But the reason you came is that you want to
participate. I should not have been surprised as news travels fast in
Malaysia, but I was. After conferring among themselves, permission
was granted. I was told that for the week before the firewalk (June 15-
22), I was to observe a strict vegetarian diet (no meat, fish, poultry, or
eggs) And abstain from alcohol. I was to fast from eating all food And
drinking liquids between sunrise And six p.m. If I could not stand the
fast, I could drink cow's milk. I was to pray or meditate each day. In
addition, I was not to indulge in any sexual behavior during this
period, keep my body clean, And sleep in the temple the night
preceding the firewalk. I accepted these conditions And returned
THE GODS DECIDE, NOT MEN
On the evening of June 21st, I returned to the temple. The temple
committee questioned me on whether I followed the conditions they
had earlier set. Satisfied with my answers, they told me to join the
other devotees And walk a half-mile to the river for the Garagam
Paalithalum (making of the garagam) And Manjal Naan Kaththalum
(tying of the yellow cord) rites.
When we arrived at the river, Kunjikanan, a small, thin, wizened
priest, knelt, prayed, And proceeded to make a garagam from mango
leaves And jasmine flowers. The garagam looks like a large conical
wizard's hat. It is a great honor for the first person to cross the fire to
I And the others who were to firewalk were instructed to bathe in the
river. When we exited, further prayers were offered And vibuthi (holy
ash composed of incinerated cow dung) was stroked on our
foreheads, chests, And arms.
Members of the congregation surrounded us And chanted verses in
Tamil to the god Lord Murugan. Each chorus was punctuated by
shouts of Vel! Vel! The vel is the lance of Lord Murugan believed to
pierce the soul And place the devotee in trance.
That evening, three of us fell into trance. Hindus believe each
individual manifests trance differently, depending on the god or spirit
possessing the person. We lined up side by side with our hands
clasped before us. Kunjikanan came to each And tied a yellow string
with a chunk of turmeric around our wrists to protect us from evil
influences. A person in trance is said to be susceptible to both good
And evil. Only those persons possessed by benevolent deities are
allowed to continue through the ceremonies. To insure that a
benevolent spirit possesses the entranced devotee, the temple
committee decides upon a test And presents it to the devotee.
The congregation continued to chant as each string was tied. When
a spirit possessed a devotee, his body swayed as if drunk. Three of
our number started to sway, lost balance, fell, And stood up, dancing
wildly. The other six, not in trance, And I watched. Suddenly, the
Monkey Spirit possessed one devotee. Running, scrambling, darting
through the crowd, he suddenly stopped And began eating coconut
husks. He ran toward me And pointed.
I was stunned. I realized that I had been chosen to cross the fire first.
Someone took me by my hand And led me to two men who held a
long sword blade up. The temple president, Kalliapam, cut a lime in
half, stuck it on the blade, placed a cube of camphor on the lime, And
lit the camphor. I did not know what was expected of me. I watched,
dazed. An entranced woman appeared, dancing And flailing a hemp
rope. She grabbed the flaming lime, gave me a dirty look, And thrust
it disdainfully to the ground. A member of the temple committee
approached me And said: You have failed the test. Had you been
possessed by the spirit, you would have jumped up And balanced on
the blade of the sword. One of the gods selected you to cross the fire
first, but a superior god forbids it. I backed away, feeling relieved.
Concurrently, a different test was given to Manogaram. Passing it, he
was chosen to wear the garagam And cross the fire first. He was
wrapped in a saffron colored dhoti And had the holy ash rubbed on
his chest And forehead a second time. He knelt down And a second
saffron cloth was folded And placed on his head. The garagam was
then lifted by two men And placed on the saffron cloth. Torches were
lit And we walked through the darkening dusk to visit homes
surrounding the temple. At each stop, the residents of the homes
poured turmeric colored water on Manogaram's feet. We returned to
HOMAGE TO THE SUN
The torches were set up in front of the temple And the firepit was
dug. At its completion, it measured twenty-eight feet long, four feet
wide, And six inches deep. At the ends, two smaller pits,
approximately one foot long, four feet wide, And six inches deep were
Around 10:00 p.m., this was finished And Kunjikanan entered the pit.
He knelt in the center, chanted prayers, placed an offering of fruit,
milk, And flowers, And lit a cube of camphor. A teepee of small twigs
was built around the blazing camphor, followed by larger branches.
The fire blazed through the dry wood And larger limbs added to the
holocaust. Finally, logs - some measuring two to three feet long And
six to twelve inches thick were added. The flames soared into the
night. The intense heat could be felt over twenty feet away. In the
next twenty hours, a ton of wood would burn down to six inches of
charcoal. We would then walk barefoot across it. Preparations for
the festival continued; I watched the fire illuminate the night. Lying on
a mat on the cement floor of the temple, I slept poorly.
As the sun rose, Kunjikanan held up a flame to invoke the god Savitar
- the personification of the sun in its role as vivifier And stimulator.
For over three millennia, Hindus have offered the first prayers of the
day to him: Let us meditate on the excellent glory of Savitar. May he
stimulate our prayers.
THE EGO SHATTERED
At 10:00 a.m., the ceremonial bathing of the goddess Mariamman
commenced. Water, honey, And milk were successively poured over
it. Then the holy ash vibithu was rubbed on the statue, And the red
dot, the pottu, was placed over the goddess' third eye.
Manogaram entered the temple And knelt before the goddess. The
garagam was replaced on his head. He rose, And preceded by
drums And trumpets, visited homes in the community as was done the
night before. At each home, prayers were offered And saffron water
poured over Manogaram's feet. Then Kunjikanan would hold a
coconut over his head And thrust it to the ground, shattering it.
Children ran to gather the pieces.
The coconut, symbolic of the skull, is shattered to represent how the
ego must be shattered. Firewalking is a form of worship,
thanksgiving, atonement, And expiation. If the ego, believed by
Hindus to separate humanity from God, is not shattered, true worship
And devotion is obstructed. After the last home was visited,
torchbearers, drums, trumpets, And cymbals, led us back to the
temple. A procession of women, wearing brightly colored saris,
jasmine braided in their hair, carried urns of food offerings
(naivadya). They circled the temple clockwise three times And placed
their offerings inside. The food was blessed, a portion offered to the
deities, And the remainder taken outside to be eaten in communion by
At approximately three in the afternoon, a few hours before the start
of the firewalk, my sense of calm dissipated. I began to feel both
scared And sick. Although the fire had burned down almost level to
the ground, the heat seemed to increase. I did not feel as assured of
success as I had previously. All the joking predictions my western
friends had made began to take their toll. I asked permission to leave
the temple compound And go to a nearby house to rest. I lay down
for an hour, exhausted, anxious, And unable to sleep.
I became aware I was hiding. I felt that if I stayed in the house any
longer I would talk myself out of participating. Either I had faith in my
successful completion or I did not. I rose from the bed And left the
house. As I walked to the firepit, I could feel the rough grasses
irritating the soles of my feet. My god, I thought, if I can't even walk
on grass, how will I ever walk on fire?
I watched tongues of flame leap through fist-sized charcoal.
By 5:30 p.m., several hundred people gathered at the temple. We
walked to the river for the ritual soul cleansing of the devotees. Each
Hindu temple, if possible, is located near a river in remembrance of
the Ganges, Mother of Rivers. Hindus believe bathing in the Ganges
washes away sins. Kunjikanan lit a small brass lamp And placed it
beside the goddess Mariamman who had earlier been brought to the
river. This establishing of the light (Deepa Sthapana) is performed to
invoke the gods. A pinch of kumkum, a bright red powder, was
placed in the flame And a flower placed on the lamp base. The ten of
us who were about to firewalk held out our hands to receive And drink
water. We rubbed the excess across our head in a ritual known as
achamana. Kunjikanan then placed the holy ash, sandalwood, And
kumkum on our foreheads And place the red pottu mark over the
locus of our third eyes. He offered incense to the goddess, passing it
three times in a clockwise circle And ringing a bell with his left hand.
Broken rice And flower petals were tossed before the deity And a
small offering of fruits And cooked foods placed before her.
We had reached the high point of the worship known as the arata. At
this moment, the goddess' benevolence was felt to be the strongest
And streamed out to all present. With hands palm to palm, touching
the forehead (namaskar), all bowed to the goddess. Kunjikanan then
took the oil lamp, held it in front of each worshiper who would pass
both hands through the flame And press their fingers to their eyes.
The ten of us who were to firewalk bathed in the river. When we
emerged, Kunjikanan rubber turmeric on our bodies.
We stood side by side. The crowd chanted songs to Lord Murugan.
Hearing the chorus of Vel! Vel! the devotees at the beginning of the
line fell into trance. The man standing next to me fell on the ground
And rolled in the sand, ten feet in one direction, And then ten feet in
another. Another devotee, hands raised above his head, eyes wide
And blank, danced wildly. The Monkey Spirit entered another.
I stood, eyes downcast, And tried to catch glimpses of what was
occurring. I thought of the night before And wondered what was to
happen. This wasn't my culture. This wasn't my religion. How could
I enter trance?
A group of singers chanting Vel! Vel! moved closer to me. My friend
Lingam came behind me And whispered: think about the god. The
previous week, I had selected: Lord, I do believe, help thou my
unbelief as my mantra. It was cyclical, soft sounding, And relevant to
the firewalk. I repeated the chant.
Five devotees on my left had already fallen into trance. The chanters
arrived at me. Vel! Vel! I stood confused. I found myself rocking on
my heels, eyes open to the chaos surrounding, but emotionally
detached, dissociated. Someone next to me collapsed, stood up, And
was led away to have his tongue And cheeks pierced by nine-inch
lances - the vels of Lord Murugan. The skewers pierced his flesh.
There was no blood. He danced. Another person grabbed a hemp
whip And flailed it, chasing the crowd until he was stopped And
pacified. Someone else battled an invisible opponent. Others
writhed on the ground like stricken snakes. I stood transfixed. The
chanters surrounded me. Vel! Vel! Each time their voices seemed
louder. I thought: concentrate on what is happening. I felt a sort of
blackness come, penetrating. My eyes closed. I forced them open,
to be aware, to be conscious. Vel! Vel! I fell back another step. I felt
the cool, wet sand beneath my feet. My body wavered, like a flame
ready to be extinguished. Vel! Vel! Louder And louder. Then the
sounds receded, like an ocean wave retreating. The chanters moved
on to the next person.
Lingam came to me And spoke. I heard his words, but could not
fathom their meaning. He repeated himself three times. I watched his
lips, fascinated. I waited And did not attempt to answer. Later, the
temple president approached And told me: You are in trance. You
can walk across the fire. You will not be hurt.
THE SECOND TEST
Some time later, my friend Karen approached And asked how I was
doing. My immediate response was: I feel like I am going to my
execution. I was unaware of how that comment could shock her.
Before Karen could respond, someone approached, took me by my
wrist And led me to the temple committee.
An old Indian woman fell to her knees And prayed in Tamil that I
would fall deeper into trance. I watched uncomprehendingly. A lime
was sliced in half, And placed on the ground before me. On top of
each half, a cube of camphor was placed And lit. I felt my right foot
rise And stamp out the tongue of flame. The juice from the lime
splattered on my other leg. I thought: slower next time. I consciously
raised my left foot And placed it slowly down. There was no
sensation of heat. The crowd surrounding me roared in approval.
My left hand was taken And opened. A lime was placed in my palm,
camphor placed on it, And lit. I closed my fingers And extinguished
the flame. For a second I felt a slight burning sensation in my
fingertips. Then nothing. Again, the crowd cheered. Soon two men
approached carrying a sword, blade up. There was no memory of the
night before. I stood, staring. Kaka Singh, son of the woman who
had prayed at my feet, leapt on the blade, held waist high by the two
men. He squatted And balanced on it. In Tamil, he told me he was
Madurai Veeran, a fierce forest god. I had not entered full trance.
Because of that, he would take me across the fire. He grabbed limes,
shoved them in his mouth, chewed them to green gruel, And spit them
out at me. I stood transfixed. Stunned. Detached. There was no
reaction. I couldn't conceive of what was happening.
He leapt off the sword, grabbed my wrist, And pulled me toward the
temple, perhaps a half-mile away. The crowd ran ahead of us to get
good positions at the firepit. As we were running, someone stopped
us And indicated we were to follow the temple officials And
Manogaram who carried the garagam. We came back, followed
momentarily, And then suddenly began running toward the pit.
The crowd surrounding the firepit increased with each passing
moment. The pit was literally white hot. I didn't realize it at the time,
but I did not feel the heat emanating from the pit, even though the
crowd surrounding it from a distance shielded their faces with their
I waited for the garagam carrier, for the priests And musicians to
arrive. My thoughts shifted to the charcoal, of how hot it seemed. I
thought of how the pit did not appear raked, as it was strewn with fist-
sized chunks of charcoal. (I was wrong on this point; before my
arrival unburned pieces of wood had been raked out, although the pit
was neither flat nor tamped down.) I became very aware that I, a six
foot, two inch tall white man, stood out in the crowd. I wanted to
leave. To disappear. I thought of how this was not a very good idea
after all, that I could be seriously injured. Where was the man with
the garagam? I wanted one more demonstration that this could be
accomplished. I was quite willing to be the last to cross.
Literally, I was coming to my senses.
I was afraid. I started to silently chant: Lord, I do believe ... Lord, I do
believe ... Lord, I do believe...
At the opposite end of the firepit, nearest to the entrance to the
temple, Kunjikanan poured cow's milk into a smaller pit previously
dug. Inches in front of me, another small pit had already been filled
with water And holy ash. I felt a tug on my wrist, stepped into the ash
water, And out again onto the small patch of grass before the burning
charcoal. I looked over my shoulder. Where was Manogaram?
There was another tug on my wrist. I was aware that I was running.
A purely kinesthetic sense of movement. I had no awareness of the
crowd, of anything surrounding me. I did not hear the music loudly
playing. I thought no thoughts. I had no sensation of burning
charcoal under my feet. After the first twenty feet, something
happened. My trance broke. In an instant, I was aware of the crowd,
of a slight burning sensation under my feet. The thought flashed
through my mind: Another two or three steps.
When I reached the end of the pit, two men whose responsibility was
to catch the runners And back them into the pit of milk caught me.
Later, a friend told me that as I finished, I said: I did it! I have no
memory of saying anything.
I entered the temple. Kunjikanan offered my holy ash And indicated I
was to rub it on the soles of my feet. I felt happy. I was not sure what
to do next, so I waited in the temple. One by one, the other
firewalkers entered. A woman in trance, dancing, came And handed
me a lime. Suddenly, I realized that I was still holding the lime handed
to me at the river. I saw friends standing outside the temple staring at
me, looking worried. I stared back. It didn't occur to me to go out And
speak with them. After a few moments, I became aware of their
anxiety And went out. One asked:
How are you?
How was the fire?
Let's see your feet.
I showed him my feet. He shook his head And left. Later, he told me
that There was no reason to talk, as I wasn't coherent. I walked over
to another friend, spoke for a moment, And re-entered the temple.
A short while later, a vegetarian feast was served to all. I was sitting
next to one of my friends when I became aware of coming out of it.
My normal reactions And sensations were returning. My feet
suddenly felt on fire. The pain was great. I was afraid I would cry. I
thought: I'll never firewalk again. Then the chant rolled through my
mind: Lord, I do believe, help thou my unbelief…Lord, I do believe...
The pain stopped. I continued to eat. After I finished, I put on my
socks And shoes And my friend And I took a long walk. My sense of
That evening, the goddess Mariamman was paraded through the
community. I did not know it at the time, but the goddess I ran toward,
the black goddess, Mariamman, known as Durga, known as Kali,
Mother Death, was the goddess who presides over the cycles of an
individual's life. I sensed a new cycle had begun.
Although excitement grew within me, after an hour of following the
parade, my friend was tired. We returned to the home where we had
been offered a place to sleep. As the night before I had slept poorly, I
assumed I would fall asleep immediately. Louie And I talked for a few
minutes And he slept.
I lay awake on my bed. My mind initially ran through the events of the
day. A sense of joy continued, but more the joy of success, of
completion. Then my body felt not as much as if it was floating, but
rather as if everything had dropped away, leaving it suspended in
empty space. My skin became hypersensitive; each cell felt enlarged
And detached, separated. Thought ceased. Initially slowly, but with
increasing fierce intensity, each individual cell felt orgasmic: growing
in ardor, each unconnected, each interconnected, consumed in a fire
of pure rapture. Every moment, it increased, purely sensual. It lasted
hours until I fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning, I woke to the rays of the sun.