How far would you be willing to go in the name of religion? Do you ever wonder if your soul is pure enough to be able to walk on fire without being scathed or are you scared of perishing immediately? Every year, thousands of faithful devotees walk barefoot across a long stretch of burning charcoal as an offering to the goddess Draupati Amman or Draupadi. Believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Mariamman, Draupati Amman was the only wife of the five Pandavas in the Mahabharata epic. Once a year, the chant of 'Om Shakti' reverberates in the air, the environment is electrifying, and the smoke of the hot burning charcoal encompasses the surroundings. The loud blare of the drums and the rising flames create a divine atmosphere while throngs of people watch or participate in this festival. This fire-walking ceremony, held once a year, is popularly known as Thimithi.
With its roots in Tamil Nadu, this Hindu festival has its branches spread all the way to Singapore where it is celebrated with great pomp and pomposity. Thimithi is basically a small part of a larger ceremony which stretches over two months. During this period, various scenes of the great epic Mahabharata is re-enacted by hired drama troupes who are accompanied by the devotees. Thimithi falls on the month of Aipasi of the Tamil calendar which is usually a week before the Festival of Lights, Deepavali.
The birth of Thimithi
Draupadi was a charming princess who was married to five Pandava brothers. From the revered queen, she turned into a scapegoat when she was dragged to the court of the Kauravas and harassed after her husbands lost her in a gambling game of dice. Following the tragic incident, Draupadi took an oath not to comb her hair until she cleansed her tresses with the blood of one of the Kauravas. The Pandavas, in a fit of rage, waged one of the most destructive wars against the Kauravas and killed them all in the Kurukshetra War.
Draupadi was accused of being the sole cause of the horrific bloodshed even though there were several other factors which had led to the war. However, the catastrophic war was not the end of misfortune in the Mahabharata. Draupadi was made to walk on burning cinder to prove her chastity and fidelity, and purify herself of all that had defiled her. She passed the fire unscathed and proved her virtue. Since then, the devotees of Draupadi have been worshipping the deity by going through what she had to face and dedicating the day of Thimithi to her.
How is Thimithi celebrated in Singapore?
The ceremonies of Thimithi last for around two and a half months and are conducted in the magnificent Sri Mariamman Temple of Singapore. On the first Monday of the month Aadi of the Tamil calendar, which corresponds to July or August in the Gregorian calendar, the ceremony commences. To mark the beginning, a huge flag with a picture of Lord Hanuman is hoisted within the premises of the temple. For the next two days, scenes from the Mahabharata are enacted in the evenings. Following this tradition, a symbolic marriage ceremony between Draupadi and Arjuna is conducted in a beautiful, elaborate manner.
Before the new moon of the next month Purattasi, corresponding to September and October, the Aravana Puja is conducted to honour Arjuna's son, Aravana for sacrificing himself to the Gods to ascertain the triumph of the Pandavas in the war. The devotees plant a trident beside the shrine of Aravana to commemorate the war that lasted for eighteen days. A grand chariot procession is conducted around Bukit Tamah and Telok Blangah on the weekend prior to a month of the main festival. Keesaka Samharam is an important rite which takes place about a month before Thimithi. This ritual portrays the death of Keesaka, who was slain by Bheema due to his attempts of seducing Draupadi.
As the day of the fire-walking ceremony closes in, the worshippers carry milk pots to the temple and perform Kumbiduthandam, which signifies prostrating after every three steps. Angapirathatchanam, which means rolling around the complex of the temple, is also a common ritual among the male devotees. On the day of the main festival, the grand fire-walking ceremony takes place after the initial prayers and rituals. Later in the evening, a silver chariot procession solely dedicated to Draupadi is taken out through the city to allow the devotees to offer their prayers and seek blessings.
Even though the festival reaches its crescendo with the fire-walking, Thimithi is terminated two days later, during which the final chapter of the Mahabharata is recited and the triumph of the Pandavas is portrayed by hosting a crowning ceremony of the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira. As the festival ends, the flag is also lowered.
Highlight of the Thimithi festival
The apex of Thimithi is undoubtedly the elaborate rituals of the fire-walking ceremony. In the morning, a fire pit, approximately three metres long, is dug within the premises of the sanctuary. In close proximity to the pit, the devotees dig a smaller pit into which milk is poured for the walkers to dip their feet in. The chief priest lights the fire with pieces of sandalwood and the coal inside the pit starts burning. After the initial ceremonies and prayers, the priest ties a yellow string to all the people participating in the fire-walking ceremony. The fire-walkers have to complete a mandatory walk from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to the Sri Mariamman Temple which lies at a distance of not less than five kilometres from the former.
The flames of the fire pit can rise up to four metres high, and it becomes difficult to even stand near it. Drums, conches, bells and cymbals fill the air with loud music. The tradition begins with the chief priest walking along the length of the pit with a pot filled with water, referred to as the karakattam, balanced on his head. He is followed by the male believers, each awaiting their turn to cleanse their souls. After the ceremony comes to an end, the fire is extinguished using water and milk.
When is Thimithi celebrated in Singapore?
Falling in October or November, Thimithi is celebrated every year in a festive manner. In 2018, this religious festival is to be celebrated on the 28th of October, which is a Sunday.
Where in Singapore is Thimithi celebrated?
Sri Mariamman Temple is beautifully embellished during Thimithi and is thronged by hundreds of worshippers on the day of the festival.
Located on the South Bridge Road in Chinatown, this holy place of worship can be reached by taking the bus 61, 166, or 197 and getting down at the bus stop right at the opposite side of the temple. If you prefer the MRT, you can embark on the one to Chinatown Station, take the Exit A which is only two minutes away from the temple.
Thimithi is an unconventional festival celebrating the virtue and chastity of the Goddess Draupati Amman and every other woman in this world. It is a celebration of the victory of womanhood over the ones who attempt to defile her. The wonderful ceremony and the dedication of the devotees should surely be witnessed at least once in a lifetime. It is truly an unforgettable experience.