Udappu fishing village, Chilaw District, Sri Lanka

Udappu Fire Walking

The Fire Walking

At 9:30 pm a sudden stir of anticipation coursed through the crowd seated round the fire. The distant sound of drumming drew nearer, and soon the procession of fire walkers came into view.

There were more than 2,000 of them, led by the medium carrying the silver pot of flags on his head. Having bathed in the sea to cleanse themselves, the faithful came, still dripping, to walk over the bed of coals.

The medium led the way, walking sedately across the glowing embers. Following him was the villager in the role of Arjuna, carrying the Pandava flag.

Then came the rest of villagers, one after another—some crossing the fire with deliberately measured paces, hands joined devoutly over their heads, others running unashamedly, all accompanied by the pulsating rhythm of the drums.

Some carried little children across, some led children by the hand, and many children crossed on their own. As the stream of devotees crossed the fire, the medium paced up and down to one side, the silver pot balanced on his head.

Finally, the drums began to beat faster, the medium quickened his pace, and the flag bearer crossed the fire, drawing the communal ordeal to a close.

The devotees had emerged unscathed—protected, according to their belief, by the hair of Draupadi stretched like a carpet over the coals.