The Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, was built in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, the nation’s builder, as a mark of gratitude to the goddess. The later brick structure of 1843 has evolved into today’s temple, the tower complete with gods and goddesses, and even sepoys in khaki, a sign of the then British Raj.

The annual Theemidhi or Fire Walking Festival here is a memorable occasion, and has been practised since 1840. Draupadi, the Pandava queen, was born of the fire, and walked on fire at the end of the long Mahabharata war, showing the world her piety and chastity, qualities which ensure victory and success. Ever since, ardent devotees venerate Draupadiamman by following strict penance of abstinence prior to the firewalk, thanking the goddess for granting their wishes.

The first Monday of the month of Adi sees Arjuna’s flag hoisted with a picture of Hanuman, depicting strength. Episodes from the Mahabharata are read out daily till two days after the Theemidhi. ‘Keechaka Vadham’ forms an important episode.

Aravanan, the son of Arjuna and Ulupi, has a separate shrine here. This unique character is believed to have been sacrificed to Goddess Kali to ensure victory for the Pandavas in the great war. His wish to witness the war from the ‘after world’ was granted. The firewalkers pray at this shrine after they complete their walk.

The almost 3 km long fire pit is prepared from early evening, about a week before Diwali. It is filled with coal and sandalwood logs on top. The chief priest of the temple lights the fire, maintained till about 7.30 p.m. by the devotees, till the flames burn down to glowing embers.

At about 8 p.m., the embers are ready and the air of excitement is palpable. Songs on Shakti are presented by a group seated near the Ganesha shrine, which is close to the pit. All eyes are now focussed towards the entrance, awaiting the arrival of the procession from the Perumal temple 4 km away. The ‘Pandaram,’ who carries the karagam on his head, arrives, and soon he is running across the fire pit in complete devotion, verily embodying the spirit of the goddess Herself at that moment.

Almost 4,000 firewalkers follow and this goes on till wee hours of the morning, even as the nagaswarm strains add to the already charged atmosphere. They then cool their feet in a small milk pit kept next to the fire pit.

On October 16, more than 10,000 people thronged the Mariamman temple, to witness the Theemidhi. About 800 volunteers worked for almost four weeks to organise this festival.

The Theemidhi is a truly unique ritual. As one watched the ritual in progress, one learnt not to play with fire, in the literary sense, and understand the holiness of the occasion.