Udappu fishing village, Chilaw District, Sri Lanka

Udappuwa's annual Draupadi Goddess Festival

Udappuwa was a hive of activity. In a sandy area before the central Hindu temple of this seaside village, men fed great logs of tamarind wood to a raging bonfire. The heat around the fire was tremendous. The fire-builders, their white sarongs tucked up to their knees, were soaking wet, their bodies glistening with sweat and the sea water their fellow fire-builders continually poured over them as they worked. It was the afternoon of the 18th day of the annual Draupadi Goddess Great Festival, an event that draws thousands of devotees to this settlement of l5,000 souls. The festival reaches its crescendo as some 2,000 faithful walk barefoot across a searing bed of red-hot coals.

Udappuwa lies on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, some six kilometres off the main Chilaw-Puttalam highway on a strip of land between Mundal Lake and the sea. The village seems to rise out of the sand, the houses ranked in rows along either side of sandy lanes that run from an open area around the Hindu temple—the facade of which we found decorated with whole plantain trees and strings of coloured lights. On the outskirts of the area stood temporary stalls selling food, drink and sundry goods such as toys, plastic houseware, ornaments and row upon row of shiny coloured bangles.