Udappu fishing village, Chilaw District, Sri Lanka

Fire Walking Moment of Truth

At the pit, the fire was now settling into a glowing mass of coals, from which leapt occasional flames and sparks. The fire-builders washed with saffron water and continued to prod and rake the coals.

They pulled chains across the bed to drag out logs too massive to be reduced to coals in the time that remained. Then they beat the glowing embers with long clubs to form a level bed rising perhaps half a metre above the surrounding sand.

Finally, they reinforced the edges of the bed with blocks of sod that they hammered down with the clubs. The fire, which in the course of the day had devoured a small forest of tangled tamarind, was now compressed solid into a metre-thick slab of uniform coals, each about the size of a child's fist.

It crouched in the pit like a cowed but vengeful dragon, its flesh of fire pulsing red with suppressed fury. At last, preparations were complete.