Trance in Fire Walking Rituals of Goddess Tiraupati Ammaṉ Temples in Tamilnadu

July 25th, 20106:19 am Published by

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Abstract

The entire epic of Mahābhārata is performed as a set of storytelling, theatrical, and ritual performances in the northern districts of Tamilnadu in honor of Goddess Tiraupati. The month long ParatakÅ«ttu performances culminate in rituals where hundreds of men and women devotees walking barefoot on burning coals (TÄ«miti) in fulfillment of their ritual vows and enacting the mythologies of Tiraupati being the woman born of fire. This paper analyzes the social constructs leading towards the highly charged trance states in men and women prior to, during, and after the fire walking rituals. Through the case studies of personal narratives the paper presents how trance in this context is viewed both as a physical and an emotional achievement and what kind of social implications they entail. Arguing that the women identify themselves with Goddess Tiraupati and her helplessness through the performances of mythology the paper proceeds to present personal narratives of participants in such rituals. Finding structural similarities in the narratives of several participants the paper presents how emotional intensities are created through the narrativizing of values. 

1 Introduction: Tamil words that signify native perceptions on the emotional state of trance

The tÄ«miti (fire walking) participants of the Mahābhārata festival use the words “āvÄ“cam” and “aruḷ” to describe the experiences of people who get possessed. The Tamil words for trance, “āvÄ“cam” and “aruḷ” are indicative of the emotional states men and women achieve prior to, during, and after fire walking rituals of Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati1 Ammaṉ temples of TamilNadu. The word “āvÄ“cam” would literally mean “height of anger” whereas “aruḷ” which is again literally translated as ”grace”  would refer to a fluid state of the body and consciousness where both have become conduits and sites for a divine energy to descend and communicate. Shulman, making a fine distinction between the these two experiences referred to by the Tamil words, accords a higher devotional value to “aruḷ” inside the Tamil classical traditions in preference to other possessions of āvÄ“cam of the religious practices of villages (Shulman, 2002)2 The villagers of TÅ«ci and Takkōlam in Kañcipuram district where I did extensive documentation of Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples, do recognize the distinction between these two experiences but the distiction is also blurred and “āvÄ“cam” is often viewed as descending of the “aruḷ” of the goddess on the chosen few. While fire walking rituals are common for several other goddess temples in Tamilnadu, and “āvÄ“cam” is the word invariably used to refer to the dominant emotion in most of the trance situations, it is only in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples the prevailing emotion of anger has been endorsed by mythological reason and justification. In the neighboring temples of other goddesses “āvÄ“cam”. The entire epic of Mahābhārata is performed as a set of storytelling, theatrical, and ritual performances in the northern districts of Tamilnadu in honor of Goddess Tiraupati. The month long ParatakÅ«ttu performances culminate in rituals where hundreds of men and women devotees walking barefoot on burning coals (TÄ«miti) in fulfillment of their ritual vows and enacting the mythologies of Tiraupati being the woman born of fire. This paper analyzes the social constructs leading towards the highly charged trance states in men and women prior to, during, and after the fire walking rituals. The narrative of Mahābhārata and its axiological dilemmas present the overarching framework for the unfolding of emotions of the ritual participants who transform their otherwise ordinary lives into moments of coming in touch with the divinity through their capacity for emotional intensity. Arguing that the women identify themselves with Goddess Tiraupati and her helplessness through the performances of mythology the paper proceeds to present personal narratives of participants in such rituals. Finding structural similarities in the narratives of several participants the paper presents how emotional intensities are created through the narrativizing values. Trance in this context is viewed both as a physical and an emotional achievement. In the neighboring temples of other goddesses “āvÄ“cam” is reasoned as “malai Ä“á¹›utal” (lit. 'climbing a mountain')  and coming out of the trance as “iá¹›aá¹…kutal” (lit. 'climbing down'). “Malai Ä“á¹›utal” does not refer to a gradual progress contrary to the suggestion contained therein, and it refers to a suddenness or an abrupt seizure of the body and the consciousness by an unknown benign force, “iá¹›aá¹…kutal” , refers to a slow regaining of the worldly senses. In the classical Tamil Åšaivite religious parlance the sudden seizure of the body is described by the phrase “taá¹­uttu āṭkoḷḷal” (lit. 'blocking and taking over') which is to say God forcefully takes over the devotee's body and consciousness. From “malai Ä“á¹›utal” to “āvÄ“cam” and “taá¹­uttu āṭkoḷḷal” to “aruḷ” there is a continuum of emotional experiences marked by various intensities of bodily strain, and duration in a variety of Tamil ritual and festival contexts. Pouting of the tongue, gritting of the teeth, rolling or closing of the eyes, extreme stretching and straining of the nerves and limbs, and an altered level of consciousness which can not be recalled again in ordinary waking states characterize the trance situations.

Dhanalakshmi in trance during the ritual of Tiraupati being born out of Homa fire,Takkōlam September 2009

Since the emotions, thoughts, and words during the trance can not be remembered and recounted by the subjects often the conversations with them would wander into why they do fire walking rather than the actual emotional experience of going through the trance. In the villages of Tūci and Takkōlam I have taken the entire video documentation Mahābhārata festival and arranged for public screenings. During such public screenings I collected the comments of the ritual participants on seeing their trance states. With those comments acting as prompters for further conversations I built their discourse of bits and pieces of perspectives, remembrances, fragmented narratives, and anecdotes. In this paper I try to present their discourse of trance state emotions which are otherwise considered to be inaccessible and unknowable.


TÅ«ci villagers watching the public screening of fire walking documentation September 2009

The attempt here is not to claim that the emotional content of trance in fire walking rituals of Tiraupati temples is fully comprehensible but to chart the way emotions are perceived in local and native social discourses.

2 Ascribing the value of heroic leadership to āvēcam


Takkōlam leader and chief organizer of Mahābhārata festival, Devabalan entering the fire pit as the first devotee September 2009

For Devabalan, the Takkōlam leader and the chief organizer of Mahābhārata festival it is his hereditary right to enter the fire pit as the first devotee leading hundreds and hundreds of other ritual participants known by the name “kumāra varkkam” (lit. 'class of children'). Tracing the history behind the naming of the ritual participants of Mahābhārata festival as Kumāra varkkam Hiltebeitel and Dirks have written that the warrior ancestors of these villages were given this prestigious title by the erstwhile kings of Thondaimandalam region (Hiltebeitel 1991, Dirks 1987). Devabalan and his family members do not know the historical facts through which the entire class of organizers and the devotees have acquired the name kumāra varkkam or ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam. What they know is that it is their tradition to call themselves as ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam or simply as kumāra varkkam during the Mahābhārata festival. So they print the festival invitations in the name of kumāra varkkam and understand the phrase to mean that they are the children of Tiraupati. Hiltebeitel has eloquently argued that the Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples is also a celebration of the memory of local history and kinship (Hiltebeitel 1991). The processional carrying of Tiraupati's weapon, flag, ritual water pot (karakam), and the statue of Pōttarājā to the border of the village and coming back again to the temple premises on the day of fire walking in Takkōlam do have the paraphernalia of royal display of power and they do confirm that this festival is also a celebration of history of their local kingship.


Kumāra varkkam carrying Tiraupati's flag, weapon, and the statue of Pōttarājā Takkōlam September 2009

The spectacular procession of the ritual participants to the border of the village is largely silent but when they return to the temple premises where the fire pit is waiting for them their walking is frenzied and the cries “Kōvintā”, “Kōvintā” fill the air. The procession certainly evokes the memory of an army going to war.
          It was a war of different sorts for Devabalan this year. His leadership was questioned by a rival faction in the village. Devabalan belongs to thepolitical party, DMK (Tirāvida Muṉṉēṭṛa Kalakam) which is officially an atheist party. Devabalan has won the local election on DMK ticket to become the president of Takkōlam panchayat. Although he has become doubly qualified to lead the village in all walks of life, since he espouses an atheist ideology and he never had an experience of possession the rival faction questioned his qualifications to lead and organize the Mahābhārata festival at the Tiraupati Ammaṉ temple. Village meetings after meetings could not resolve this issue and the festival could not be held during the summer months. The final compromise was arrived at after Devabalan announcing in one of the panchayat meetings that he would wear the turmeric wristlet (kāppu) and yellow ritual clothes, go through all the observances required out of kumāra varkkam, and enter the fire pit as the first devotee. As he was making this announcement he was very angry and was close to reaching āvÄ“cam. His body was uncontrollably shaking, his body was profusely sweating, his eyes became bloodshot, but he was aware of what he was saying in the meeting. Everybody including the members of the rival faction thought that it was a divine command from the goddess herself and agreed to his leadership. However the death rituals for the slain Turiyōtaṉaṉ after the fire walking should be done by a senior ñāṉācāri (lit. 'wise teacher') belonging to the rival faction. Devabalan agreed to the compromise.


kumāra varkkam procession returning from the border of the village after their ritual bath and pūjā for Kāḷi

The announcement incident was the only occasion Devabalan had an experience which was close to āvÄ“cam. Otherwise he thought he was incapable of getting into trance. The festival was delayed and it had to be scheduled in September finally. Although the rival faction gave in, they were waiting for some mishap to take place and Devabalan had to make sure the arrangements for the festival were proper. September being the monsoon month it could bring in rains and spoil the fire walking ritual. Had it rained on the fire walking day the entire village would have attributed the mishap to Devabalan's leadership and he would have lost his subsequent elections as well. There was also another risk. Two days before the fire walk, under the leadership of the ñāṉācāri the ritual participants ceremoniously set Tiraupati's sword to stand on its tip on the sides an earthen pot. Defying the gravitation the sword should stand on the sides of the pot for three days till the fire waking gets over. Had the sword fallen before the conclusion of the fire walking ritual it would have meant cāmi kuṛṛam (lit. 'mistake against the goddess). Like the fire pit that would not hurt the devotees of Tiraupati, the sword defying gravitation also testifies to the power of the goddess.
          Luckily it did not rain on the fire walking day. The sword stood still on the sides of the pot without a hitch. Devabalan had passed the two tests but he had never walked on fire on his own before. As a child he had sat on the shoulders of his father who walked on fire. As the lead first man he has to walk slowly with determination, he has to throw a ball of jasmine flowers on the burning coals, bend down, take the jasmine ball from the embers, and walk across the pit. In addition, the fire pit has been prone to accidents3. In TÅ«ci even in the 2006 festival Kuppu ācāri and Ranganathan both priests at the Tiraupati temple fell in the fire pit and were burnt all over. Compared to the Takkōlam fire pit TÅ«ci fire pit did not have depth and burning coals were spread on the surface. TÅ«ci did not have fences around the fire pit in 2006. While the frenzied kumāra varkkam charged on the fire pit the onlookers crowd swelled, jostled, pushed, cheered, and in the process shoved Kuppu ācāri and Ranganathan into the pit. Both of them were hospitalized for more than three months. Learning from such accidents in the neighboring villages, Devabalan had fenced the fire pit with wooden poles that would contain the pushing crowd. He had also made a pathway that would allow only one fire walker at a time. The fire walkers can come in a crowd but they need to be regulated in a line to walk or run across the fire pit through the fences. More over the law and the police do not look at accidents during fire walking kindly and if at all fatal accidents occur the organizers could be charged, tried, and imprisoned.
      On the day of fire walking Devabalan thought he might die on the fire pit. If he were to die, then it was for the sake of his ancestors, the heritage of his village, his hereditary right, and his victory over the rival faction. It was quite an arduous task for him to organize this month long festival. He took his moped and biked all over his village. His felt the love for his children moistening his eyes. He did not join the procession going to the border of the village in the afternoon4. He stayed behind in the temple and for once looked into the eyes of Tiraupati Ammaṉ.
  As the others approached the temple, his family offered to pour water on his body but Devabalan refused. He felt strangely brave and defiant. He had a bunch of margosa leaves and the ball jasmine flowers ready in his hand. As he was waiting near the fire pit sweat broke out all over his body. The heat was truly unbearable. The other devotees who kindled and tended the embers standing inside the fence need to be constantly streamed with water from a hosepipe connected to a water tanker.
  Devabalan walked on fire without fear. He threw the ball of jasmine flowers on the embers, bent down, took the flowers and walked across the fire pit calmly, slowly, and steadily. He was followed by ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam devotees carrying Tiraupati's flag, weapon, and karakam. The other men and women followed afterward.
  I caught Devabalan immediately after the fire walk, under the metal statue of Tiraupati Ammaṉ who was supposedly overseeing and accepting the devotees crossing the fire pit. He said that he felt as if he were born again. He did not know how to explain that the fire did not hurt him. Definitely he did not go into trance and he showed me his unhurt feet. The ball of jasmine flowers though, was completely burnt. Actually the jasmine flowers should not have been burnt. The fact that they were burnt signified that some aspect of ritual had gone wrong and some cāmi kuṛṛam had occurred; but no body else except Devabalan and I knew about the burnt jasmines.
  That night Devabalan had a peaceful sleep.

3 Self realization and transcendence: āvēcam as an achievement and divine gift


Women devotees of TÅ«ci walking on fire May 2009

Mahābhārata storyteller Krishnamurthy was not at all amused when I told him about Devabalan's successful fire walk. “An atheist doing fire walk! These are signs of Kali Yugā” he mused and went on to explain what it means to be in the state of āvÄ“cam. Whenever he did the afternoon recitals of Mahābhārata he would elaborate and compare the status of women in the villages with that of Tiraupati. Through out the Mahābhārata Tiraupati had no say in the matters concerning her life. Immediately after her marriage with Arjunā nobody ever asked her whether she wanted to be the wife of all the five Pāṇṭavās. When Tarmar pawned her away in a game of dice she was not consulted either. The unspeakable horror of Tiraupati being drawn into the Kaurava court wearing a single garment and menstruating, is a powerful metaphor for indecency, injustice, and cruelty to a woman. During his recitals and also in the all night TerukÅ«ttu performances the similarities between Tiraupati's utter helplessness and the lives of ordinary women in the villages are drawn. According to Krishnamurthy each of the incidents in Tiraupati's life – her birth, her marriage, humiliation in the Kaurava court, exiled life in the forest, sexual harassment by KÄ«cakan, and loss of her five children in the war- is like walking on fire: meaning, going through crisis after crisis which is equivalent of death and coming out of it is like being born again into a newer world. Mahābhārata festival culminating in the fire walking ritual signify that by surrendering yourself to the will of the God you can overcome any crisis. Tiraupati's moment of humiliation in the Kaurava court is also the moment of her self realization. When she vows that she would tie her hair only with the blood of Turiyōtaṉaṉ and Tuccataṉaṉ she in fact declares the Kuruká¹£etra war in advance. Krishnamurthy and the other Mahābhārata story tellers would call that moment as Tiraupati's trance (āvÄ“cam). On the moment of her vow she realizes that the purpose of her life is to cause the greatest destruction through the Kuruká¹£etra war and restore justice in the world. Or in the parlance of Mahābhārata story tellers she realizes that she is Kāḷi, the feminine twin of Kriá¹£na. From that moment of breaking into self knowledge Tiraupati transforms from being a passive woman into a ferocious goddess who would not rest until her vow is fulfilled. The transformation is both self realization and self transcendence at the same time.
     Many women devotees do identify themselves with Tiraupati. Fourteen personal narratives I have collected from the fire walking women of TÅ«ci and Takkōlam share similar narrative structures. They all start with an insurmountable crisis in their lives, proceed on to taking a vow to do the fire walking, and conclude with everybody in the village respecting them for the accomplishment.


Priest Ranganathan’s wife Lakshmi fulfilling her vow TÅ«ci May 2009

The elevation in social status after the fire walking is quite evident for a number of women. The familial relationships improved, the in-laws treated them with more respect and in many cases the in-laws feared that their fire walking daughter in law could have the blessings and power of the goddess Tiraupati. For Krishnamurthy and other Mahabharata story tellers the disjointed and fragmented narratives of the women fire walkers are indicative of the notion of achievement contained in the fire walking rituals.
     For Rangnathan's wife Lakshmi the feeling of desperation is a prerequisite to feel a sense of achievement after the fire walking. In the year 2006, her husband Ranganathan was pushed into the fire pit by the onlooking devotees inadvertently and was burnt all over. Ranganathan being the priest of the TÅ«ci Tiraupati temple, his falling into the fire pit caused quite a sensation in the whole village. Apart from hospitalization expenses for her husband, Lakshmi had to hear the rumors that Ranganathan must have committed some cāmi kuṛṛam. Day by day she was feeling more and more miserable. Ranganathan continuing as the priest of the temple was also becoming uncertain. Their family owned a patch of agricultural land but the main income came from Ranganathan's work at the temple. Their grown up sons had been away working and living in Chennai but the option of going and living with their hostile daughter in laws, especially with her sick husband, looked like falling from the frying pan into the stove. In the year 2007, when Lakshmi was sweeping the courtyard of the Tiraupati temple she was overcome by an acute sense of despair and did not know what happened afterward. Since it was late morning most of the villagers have gone for agricultural work and a very few old men and women stayed behind in their homes. Those who stayed behind heard an unusual and loud animal sound coming from the temple courtyard. With her hair flowing, head rapidly rotating, limbs and nerves straining Lakshmi stood in the courtyard making strange noises. Her body was filled with such energy that the few old men and women, who came rushing, could not hold her down. In an alien voice Lakshmi announced that she would do the fire walking in the next Mahābhārata festival. It took nearly three hours for her to regain her consciousness. After that incident the rumors died down. When Ranganathan returned home from the hospital everybody in the village praised his wife's brave decision and he was beginning to feel comfortable with his daily duties at the temple. In the 2009 festival Lakshmi had the second āvÄ“cam as she entered the fire pit.
   Krishnamurthy's interpretation of Lakshmi's trance experience is that her inner self was sufficiently prepared by the crisis to become the recipient of the divine gift of āvÄ“cam.

4 Faking trance/ trance envy

For Rajagopal, the popular notion that one's self needs to be prepared for receiving the divine gift of āvēcam proved to be a problem. Although he has been fire walking ever since he was fourteen years old, he never had an experience of āvēcam. He visited temple everyday, did pūjā at home regularly and visited several religious gurus, mendicants, and magicians. While he thinks that fire walking is like any other sport which you can master if you have the will and the time, the greater achievement is in trance which eludes him even today. Rajagopal has always wondered why is that the trance occurs only at specific rituals or performances. The disrobing of Tiraupati episode, opening of the eyes of Kāḷi statue, and fire walking are a few of the prominent rituals where possession occurs in a mass scale. Over the years Rajagopal became envious of the people who are regularly receiving the divine gift of trance.


Rajagopal faking trance during fire walking ritual Takkōlam September 2009

     In the year 2005 Rajagopal made a strange decision. He would not do the fire walking but he would try to 'practice' getting in to trance. He always stayed with the drummers and other musicians, shouted Kōvintā, and Kōvintā in the loudest possible voice, rolled his eyes, and pouted his tongue often. His friends and relatives were quick to catch him 'faking' trance. Some of them warned him of the negative effects of invoking the wrath of Tiraupati Ammaṉ. Rajagopal could not be stopped by these warnings because he believes that he is sincere in his devotion and he only desires a communion with the goddess. Mahābhārata story tellers, TerukÅ«ttu artists, elders, and women sympathize with Rajagopal's aspirations for trance. Nobody is sure whether Rajagopal's ways of 'practicing' trance is right or wrong. Takkōlam festival 2009 also saw Rajagopal successfully simulating trance behavior during fire walking ritual.

5 The lure of the fire pit : fear, anxiety, lust, and fulfillment


Takkōlam fire pit September 2009

The fire pit is strangely alluring; there is an invitation for adventure, death, renewal, and rebirth5. As mythologies would have the fire pit is a symbol of feminine energy. In Tiraupati temples the fire pit overseen by the goddess herself compresses several meanings; it is mother (it is Tiraupati's children who walk on fire), sister (she is Kriá¹£na's twin), wife, giver, and destroyer. The fire pit is also the symbol of Tiraupati who is a menstruating virgin. In the complexities of the feminine rest the desire for justice. The fear, anxiety, lust, and fulfillment are all emotions that can be constructed only in relation to the feminine.
   The social constructs of these emotions need to be explored further.


1 Transliterations in this paper closely adheres to the spoken Tamil of the festival participants. Wherever Sanskritized words are not used in spoken parlance, Tamil transliteration is followed for even the names of charaters in Mahābhārata.
2 See Shulman’s article on Tirukkōvaiār in “Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions”. Shulman rightly points out that the literal English translation for the word “aruḷ” as “grace” is rather misleading as it refers to “a kind of fluid, shimmering fullness, marked by shifting, unpredictable intensities”
3 Hiltebeitel records several accidents including a death in 1981 during fire walking rituals. See Hiltebeitel's The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (Hiltebeitel 1991, 460).
4 Valentine Daniel's classical study Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way describes how Tamils integrate their native village into their selves. The border ritual conducted before the fire walking ritual confirms the sanctity of the village (Daniel 1984).
5 Hiltebeitel eloquently interprets the feminine nature of the fire pit (Hiltebeitel, 1991)


References

Shulman, David, and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds) 2002. Self and Self-Transformation
in the History of Religions.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Daniel, E. Valentine. 1984. Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way. Berkley:
University of California Press.

Deliege, Robert. 1997. The World of the ‘Untouchables’: Paraiyars of Tamil
Nadu.
Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dirks, Nicholas.1987. The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harman, Willam P.1992. Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass.

Hiltebeitel, Alf.1991. The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the
Goddess.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mines, Diane P.2002. Hindu Nationalism, Untouchable Reform, and the
Production of a South Indian Village. American Ethnologist 29, 1:58-85

Moreno, Manuel.1985. God’s Forceful call: Possession as a Divine Strategy. In
J.P.Waghore, N.Cutler and V.Narayanan (eds) Gods of Flesh/Gods of
Stone:The Embodiment in Divine India: Chambersburg, pa.: Anima Press.

  1. Transliterations in this paper closely adheres to the spoken Tamil of the festival participants.Wherever Sanskritized words are not used in spoken parlance, Tamil transliteration is followedfor even the names of charaters in Mahābhārata.
  2. See Shulman’s article on Tirukkōvaiār in “Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions”. Shulman rightly points out that the literal English translation for the word “aruḷ” as “grace” is rather misleading as it refers to “a kind of fluid, shimmering fullness, marked by shifting, unpredictable intensities”
  3. Hiltebeitel records several accidents including a death in 1981 during fire walking rituals. See Hiltebeitel's The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (Hiltebeitel 1991, 460).
  4. Valentine Daniel's classical study Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way describes how Tamils integrate their native village into their selves. The border ritual conducted before the fire walking ritual confirms the sanctity of the village (Daniel 1984).
  5. Hiltebeitel eloquently interprets the feminine nature of the fire pit (Hiltebeitel, 1991).