Baptism of fire

There is a faint sound of drums in the distance; a slight wind whips up the upper layer of coals, sending flickers of ash skywards. A haze sits over a long bed of burning coals, leading to a statue of a goddess, wreathed in marigold garlands and fruit. Incense fills the air.

Beyond the statue and further up the hillside is a beautiful temple nestled in the trees and adorned with deities against a verdant, tropical backdrop. This is not India, but Durban, and the Umbilo Shree Ambalavanaar Alayam Temple in Cato Manor, also known as the Second River temple, home to an annual fire-walking ceremony.

The temple, a national monument, was built here in 1947. The original temple was destroyed by floods in 1905. It is now at a safe distance from the banks of the river and houses an array of religious sculptures. It is worth taking some time to look around the temple itself (without shoes) and soak up the atmosphere.

I had come to the temple, with hundreds of others, to witness the celebration of Draupadi, the mother goddess, culminating in a fire-walking ceremony in which devotees, in an act of cleansing and religious veneration, walk over a bed of hot coals.

The festival is one of many annual celebrations taking place at this time of year in Durban, when worshippers ritually cleanse themselves by abstaining from meat, alcohol and sexual activity before the ceremonies and make offerings to the deity.

Intensity on all levels
Other festivals include Kavadi, when similar acts of devotion are practised—hooks and skewers are inserted into people’s bodies, cheeks and tongues. In the ceremony of Draupadi, fire-walking is the final stage for some of the adherents. It is an event of intensity on all levels—vivid colour, chanting, music and faith.

As people gather on a sultry Durban Sunday afternoon, carrying offerings of fruit and milk, a group of men tirelessly rake a bed of coals, dripping with sweat.

They are doused occasionally with water to keep them cool, as the temperature from the fire pit pervades the air. I can feel the heat standing three metres away and the soles of my feet tingle at the thought. The statue of Draupadi is placed at one end of the coals, facing her devotees. The coals are finally ready, and the traditional music emanating from loudspeakers falls silent. Prayer flags flutter around the fire pit, mirroring the colours of the saris, dhotis, fruit and flowers.

The 10m fire pit is the culmination of a ritual that begins outside the small wood-and-iron temple of Shree Gengaimman temple in Cato Manor.

Traditionally the preparations take place at the river.

Here, prayers and ritual washing occur, and some of the devotees are worked into trance-like states with chanting and drumming. Some place hooks in their bodies, hanging fruit and flowers from them, others skewer their cheeks and tongues, and faces are smeared with turmeric and vermilion powder. Large brass and clay pots, or goron-gons, are filled with water and fruit, laden with marigolds, and are carried on the head. From here the procession wends its way across Bellair Road to the Second River temple.

Cascading with marigolds
The drumming and chanting increase, along with my heart rate, as the procession draws closer. It is an explosion of colour, sound and smell—statues cascading with marigolds are held aloft as the vibrant gathering walks barefoot on a sari pathway leading up to the temple grounds. A monkey appears in the trees, and perches on a branch overlooking the crowd, gazing longingly at the tantalising fruit all around, but is too scared to venture closer. He has the best seat in the house, as people squeeze into every available space around the fire pit, eager to witness, chant and pray for the fire-walkers.

At the entrance to the fire pit is a pool of turmeric water, which paves the way for the fire-walkers, and at the end a pool of milk to cool the feet. As the intensity builds, the first devotee enters the fire-pit area. His eyes are rolling and he is clearly in a trance. He is led around the coals, steered past the statue three times before being blessed with leaves.

He places his feet in the turmeric water and with hands pressed together, he walks calmly across the coals, finally prostrating himself in front of the goddess. As others make their way to the area, the crowds chant to will the devotees on.

The fire-walkers are completely focused, not uttering a sound. One man dressed in shorts is prevented from fire-walking—he pleads quietly with the men, but they insist he has to wear a cloth before entering. One is quickly found and he sprints across.

Firm of mind and of foot
Drums are placed next to the coals, and an onlooker tells me that this is done to stretch the drum’s skin and increase the noise. They begin again, and the sound levels rise. An endless stream of people approach, young and old, each with their own rhythm—some calm across the coals, as if floating, others more hurried. But there are no gingerly taken steps among them, firm of mind and of foot. I witnessed one devotee who walked across twice, serene and measured.

This is a visual and sensual feast for all those who attend, and a deeply moving spiritual experience. The rituals surrounding the festival are fascinating, and it is advisable to get to the temple early if you want to observe the preparations. As I walk away, my head is swimming with imagery and the exhilarating colour and pulse of life.

I attended the annual fire-walking ceremony at the Umbilo Shree Ambalavanaar Amalayam temple on Bellair Road, Cato Manor. Look out for the signs along the road in the weeks leading up to the festival, which usually takes place in March/April. All are welcome. Many temples in KwaZulu-Natal hold ceremonies for religious festivals, such as Kavadi, which occur around the same time of year. One of the largest is held at Brake Village Temple in Tongaat.

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