The only time I saw someone walking on fire was when I was 10 years old. We were visiting my parents' village and there was some festival at the Kali temple. My father wasn't very happy with me going to the temple for the festivities but I wasn't going to give in that easily. This particular temple used to be my favorite Kali temple in the whole world for the simple reason that they used to serve the world's best aadu kaal rasam (goat's leg rasam). Those of you who have tasted this heavenly concoction will no doubt agree with me that animal sacrifice should be made legal. [In case you are wondering, no, this Kali temple is not a favorite anymore. Hasn't been for a long time. It has got nothing whatsoever to do with my irreligious temperament if that is what you are thinking. It is simply because they don't serve me aadu kaal rasam anymore. For the same reason that they won't let me into Sabarimala. I happen to be a woman. Needless to say, I wasn't going to live without addu kaal rasam, so my grandpa got the cook at the temple to come home and make me the same thing, but that is another story.]
So anyway, I am taken to the temple and made to stay away from where they slaughter the goats. Women all dressed up and dignified. Let me tell you that the neem-leaves carrying, yellow sari-wearing woman devotee that we are so familiar with is a creation of the Tamil film industry and in the days before such movies, you wouldn't have found any women in the villages of Tamland doing such nonsense. But men, now men are a different story. Lots of men and kids with their bodies pierced with vels (Yeah, Vetri Vel Veera Vel, Go Chola land!) and other such medieval weapons and carrying all sorts of contraptions on their shoulders. I believe it is called a kavadi and there are enough places in Tamland where they still have the kavadi festival. I am told that they don't usually do it for Kali but this time, they figured what the hell. You know might as well make Her happy too.
At this point, I notice that both my parents seem a little too distracted. I sense some undercurrent of nostalgia in the air. Then my mother starts telling me about the time when she was 15 and had come to my father's village for some temple festival and my father, yes, my super-agnostic father taking a kavadi, something which he vehemently tries to deny and then gives up and claims he did it all to impress her as he knew that she was coming to visit. As much as I was interested in the family romance, I was much more curious about the goat slaughter and walking on fire stuff, so I take this opportunity to leave my parents to their reminiscences and slip away.
Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, all the goats have already been slaughtered and I only get to see the rasam being cooked. I chat with the cook for sometime and then sneak off to the hot coals place. A lot of kids stand around and are hedging this other kid to walk on the coals. This poor thing, hardly 8 years old, his face pierced and painted looks at the coals and starts crying. His mother rushes in and explains to him that it wouldn't hurt and that he can go in after other kids. A man walks by me, obviously very drunk, with the kavadi on his shoulders. His family and friends come and stand around the coals and start singing religious songs. The man turns around and whispers to the guy beside him. The guy rushes off and gets a glass full of what I assume is country liquor. The man downs it and shouting some religious chant that I couldn't quite decipher steps on the hot coals. He then runs through the coals reaching the other end where another of his pals is waiting with another glass of you know what. The crowd seems to be in total rapture. And my father finds me and drags me away.
Why did I think of all this now, you ask? Because walking on fire is apparently back in fashion. [Link via Abi]. Now if only someone had told us this sometime ago, the blogosphere would not have had to have an ugly fight about the merits and demerits of reservations. All we need to do is to get aspiring students to walk on fire.