Fire Walking in Ceylon

A veteran of World War II, LEONARD FEINBERGtook his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois and is now professor of English at Iowa State College. He spent last year as Fulbright Professor of American Literal are at the University of Ceylon, and there he had an opportunity , to observe the phenomenon which he describes.

ALTHOUGH we had seen men walking barefoot on burning embers twice before, we were not prepared for the mass fire walk at Kataragama. The first time, on a pleasant summer afternoon, surrounded by playing children and laughing family groups, we watched four men walk quickly through a twelve-foot fire pit. The occasion was a Hindu festival, and the atmosphere was similar to that of a state fair in the United States. The second time we had been among the guests of a Ceylonese planter who included in the evening’s entertainment a fire-walking exhibition by six men.

But at the temple of Kataragama everything was different. There, on the night of the full moon in August, fire walking climaxes a week’s ceremonies in honor of the Hindu god Kataragama. From all over the island, worshipers and spectators (Buddhist as well as Hindu, although theoretically Buddhists do not believe in gods) had been converging on the little settlement in the jungle of southeastern Ceylon. During the early part of the week, devotees had paid tribute to Kataragama by hanging colored papers on trees near the temple or by breaking sacrificial coconuts on a rock provided for that purpose. Toward the week’s end, the nature of the sacrifices was intensified, and zealous worshipers perforated their cheeks with pins, or walked on nails, or imbedded into their naked shoulders meathooks with which they pulled heavy carts along a pitted dirt road.

By midnight the crowd was feverishly tense. Since the logs in the twenty-by-six-foot pit had been burning for four hours, the fire walking would presumably take place about 4 A.M. But the tradition against making any sort of prediction about the immediate future is so strong at Kataragama that the local priest, asked by an American tourist when the fire walking would begin, replied that there probably would not be any walking at all. The crowd surged away from the pit slowly and steadily — slowly because every inch of the temple grounds had been packed for hours, and steadily because the heat from the pit was becoming unbearable. The men and women nearest the pit had held their places for days, eating and sleeping in one spot. The Ceylonese are ordinarily very clean, but the activity at Kataragama is more important than sanitation, and as the hours passed everything intensified: the heat, the tension, the odors of sweat and urine and incense. A wave of malevolent expectation permeated the air, a powerful undercurrent of suppressed sadism that made intruders like ourselves feel dilettantish, uncomfortable, and slightly ashamed. Fire walking is far more than just a spectacle to most of these people; it is a concrete symbol of intimate identification with a supernatural power. From time to time men would shout “Hora Hora,”an Oriental form of “Amen” in honor of the god whose power transcends the science of the West.

About 2 A.M. people near us suddenly scurried to make room for a young woman carrying in her bare hands a clay pot full of burning coconut husks. She did not seem to be feeling any pain, but she was abnormally excited as she staggered to the outer sanctum of the temple. There she threw the pot down, exultantly showed the crowd her hands — they were gray, but not burned — and began knocking on the temple door. She apparently wanted to demonstrate to the priest, or the god, what she had accomplished, but no one was being admitted that night, and she was still pounding frantically at the massive door when the attention of the crowd shifted to another woman. This one too had a red-hot pot full of burning husks, but she carried it in the conventional Ceylonese fashion — on top of her head. And when she removed the pot, neither her hair nor her hands showed any sign of scorching.

Shortly before four o’clock an ominous grumbling swept through the crowd. Then angry shouts, threatening arms, protests. By climbing a stone wall I was able to see what the trouble was. A row of chairs had been reserved for several wealthy Ceylonese from Colombo and their European guests. But when they arrived they found that a group of Buddhist monks had occupied the scats and refused to move. (For more than a year, as a calculated technique of growing nationalism, monks had been usurping reserved seats at public gatherings.) The police officer tried to persuade the monks to give up the seats, but the yellowrobed figures leaned placidly on their umbrellas and pretended that he did not exist. There was no question where the sympathy of the mob lay, and when their protests became loud the police officer shrugged his shoulders and motioned to the legal holders of the seats. They dispersed to the edges of the standing mob, far away from the pit.

At four in the morning wailing flutes and pounding drums announced the arrival of the walkers. The long procession was led by white-robed priests, their faces streaked with red and yellow and white ash. By this time the flames had stopped spurting and the pit consisted of a red-hot mass of burning wood, which attendants were leveling with long branches. The heat of the fire was still intense; within ten feet of the pit it was difficult to breathe. Then the priests muttered incantations, the drums built up to a crescendo, and the fire walking began.

Among the eighty persons who walked the fire that night there were ten women. But in the mad excitement of the crowd’s cheers, the drumbeats, the odors, the tension, it was difficult to identify individuals. Some men skipped lightly through the fire, as if doing a restrained version of the hop, skip, and jump in three or four steps. Some raced through, determined, somber. Some ran through exultantly, waving spears. One man danced gaily into the center of the pit, turned, did a kind of wild jig for a few moments, then turned again and danced on through. Another man stumbled suddenly and the crowd gasped; he fell forward, hung for a ghastly moment on the coals, then straightened and stumbled on. The crowd sighed. Two women ran through, close together, holding hands, taking five or six steps. In the phantasmagoric blur of roars, screams, and incantations, the fire walkers looked less like human beings than grotesque puppets in a macabre shadow play. For a long moment one person stood out in the hectic cavalcade of charging, gyrating figures: a short, slim man in a white sarong strolled slowly and serenely through the fire, stepping on the solid earth at the end of the pit as gently as he had stepped on the embers.

After going through the fire, the walkers, some shuffling, some running, a few helped or led by attendants, proceeded to a spot beside the temple where the head priest placed a smear of saffron ash on the forehead of each participant. The ash had been taken from the pit and blessed, and the fire walkers strode off proudly.

THERE are two types of fire walking, on stones (usually of volcanic origin) in Polynesia, and on embers in Asia and Africa. Theories which try to explain the secret of fire walking fall into three categories: physical, psychological, and religious. The most publicized attempts of scientists to find the solution took place in 1935 and 1936, when the London Council for Psychical Investigation arranged two series of fire walks at Surrey, England. The council took charge of building the pit and burning the logs, it provided a number of physicians, chemists, physicists, and Oxford professors to examine every stage of the proceedings, and it published an official report of its conclusions. Some of the scientists published individual reports, in general agreeing that fire walking can be explained in terms of certain physical facts, but they did not agree on precisely what those physical facts were.

At the first series of Surrey tests, an Indian named Kuda Bux walked uninjured through a fire pit the surface temperature of which was 430° C., the interior temperature 1400° C. In the 1936 test, for Ahmed Hussain, the surface temperature was over 500° C. Both Bux and Hussain insisted that the secret was “faith,” and Hussain claimed that he could convey immunity to anyone who would walk the fire with him. A half-dozen English amateurs, who had answered the council’s advertisement for volunteers, did walk the fire behind Hussain and were “slightly burned.” One of these amateurs managed, a few days later, to walk through the fire pit alone, in three steps, without suffering the slightest injury.

In brief, the official report of the council stated that fire walking is a gymnastic feat operating on this principle: a limited number of quick and even steps on a poor conductor of heat does not result in burning of the flesh. “The secret of fire-walking,” the report said, “lies in the low thermal conductivity of the burning wood. . . . The quantity of heat transferred may remain small if . . . the time of contact is very short. . . . The time of contact is not above half a second in normal quick walking.” To put it another way, it is safe to take three even steps, limiting each contact to half a second, on wood embers (“The thermal conductivity of copper ... is about 1,000 times greater than that of wood”). The report conceded that “successive contacts . . . cause an accumulation of heat sufficient to cause injury, and . . . with fires whose temperature is 500° Centigrade or more, only two contacts can be made with each foot without erythema or blistering.”

The weight of the walker makes a difference, the report suggested, each of the Indians weighing less than 126 pounds and sinking into the embers to a lesser degree, and for a shorter time, than the heavier English amateurs. An expert also has the advantage of walking steadily and distributing his weight evenly, whereas the inexperience and undue haste of the beginner make it difficult for him to avoid resting a part of his foot more heavily than he should. When the amateur walker took an uneven number of steps, the foot which had taken more steps suffered more burns.

Other observers of fire walking have offered various explanations, the most popular being that Orientals have very tough soles. They walk barefoot all their lives, often on hot surfaces. Sometimes they put out cigarette butts with their toes and, when marching in parades, step on burning husks which have fallen out of torchbearers’ fires. This is true. But the English physicians who examined Bux and Hussain described their feet as very soft, not at all callused.

Another familiar conjecture is that fire walkers use chemical preparations to protect their feet. An American magician believes that a paste of alum and salt is applied, and other experts have speculated that soda, or soap, or juice of mysterious plants, or an anesthetic of some sort is used. But the physician and the chemist who examined Bux and Hussain at Surrey were positive that nothing had been applied to the feet; for control purposes, they washed one of Box’s feet and dried it carefully before he walked.

The “water-vapor protection” theory has a number of supporters. An American chemist recently wrote, in a popular magazine, that he could walk comfortably on burning coals and apply his tongue painlessly to a red-hot iron bar by utilizing this principle: at a certain range of high temperature, a thin film of water acts as absolute protection against heat. The trouble with this theory, as the Surrey tests showed, is 1) the fire walkers’ feet were dry, 2) it would be difficult, under any conditions, to supply a uniform amount of water to the soles during a fire walk, and 3) moisture is not advisable, because embers are likely to stick to wet soles and cause blisters.

Still another explanation was offered by Joseph Dunninger. He asserts that the trick used by firewalking Shinto priests in Japan consisted of making the fuel in the trench shallow in the center and deep on the sides, and starting the fire in the center. By the time the walking begins, the fire has burned out in the center, is still blazing at the edges, and the priests step on the cool ashes of the center. That may be the secret of the Shinto priests, but the pit at Surrey was filled evenly under the supervision of scientists. And an English planter in the Marquesas Islands, who was once teased by a local chief into fire walking, reported that the fire was hottest in the center.

These are the physical explanations. The psychological theories are more difficult to test. Having watched fire walking in Japan some years ago, Percival Lowell of Harvard concluded that the feat was made possible by the less sensitive nervous organism of the Oriental and the ecstasy of the walker (as well as the extremely tough calluses on his soles). A variation on the “ecstasy” theory is the suggestion of one psychologist that hypnosis is the secret. The fire walker, he says, has been hypnotized and provided with the same immunity to pain that can be observed even in a classroom demonstration of hypnosis. The fire walker may not know that he is hypnotized, but hypnosis is what the priest is actually practicing when he gives the walker his last-minute instructions. After the performance, while ostensibly putting a mark of holy ash on the fire walker’s forehead, the priest breaks the hypnosis. Most psychologists, however, reject this explanation on the grounds that hypnosis may lessen the subjective feeling of pain but cannot prevent skin from burning.

It is well known in the East that yogi and fakirs can attain so profound a state of concentration on a single object that nothing else distracts them. In this state, the practitioner may lie on a bed of nails, keep a hand outstretched for days, remain motionless for a week, or perform other feats whose practical value is limited but which do demonstrate a control over the body that most human beings are unable to achieve. According to some yogi, he who masters concentration can separate the soul from the body, so that the vacant shell does not feel pain. But since even a dead body will burn, this explanation is not satisfactory.

As far as the devout Ceylonese believer is concerned, the secret is simple: complete faith in Kataragama. Kataragama is a very powerful god. If, in desperation — at a time of serious illness, near-bankruptcy, dangerous competition from a hated rival — a man or woman vows to walk the fire in exchange for Kataragama’s help, Kataragama may give that help. The amateur walker, then, is either a petitioner for supernatural assistance or a grateful recipient of it. His preparation may begin as early as May, when he arrives at Kataragama and puts himself under the direction of the chief priest. For three months he lives ascetically, abstaining from all sensual pleasures, eating only vegetables, drinking only water, bathing in the holy river near the temple, and going through religious rituals conducted by the priest. If he does all this, and if he has absolute, unquestioning, complete faith in Kataragama’s power, he walks the fire unafraid and unharmed.

On the night we watched the fire walking at Kataragama, twelve people were burned badly enough to go to the hospital, and one of them died. These people, the devout believer will tell you, lacked either faith or preparation. Another man who lacked at least one of these ingredients was a young English clergyman who visited Ceylon a few years ago. This Protestant minister reasoned that the faith of a Christian was at least as strong as that of a Hindu, and he volunteered to walk the fire with the others. He did, and spent the next six months in a hospital, where doctors barely managed to save his life.

IT IS believed by the Ceylonese that Kataragama exercises absolute and somewhat whimsical control of the area within a fourteen-mile radius of his temple. His portrait, presumably life-size, shows a handsome, seven-foot-tall, six-headed and twelve-armed god, with two women and a blue peacock for companionship and transportation. Although he is technically a Hindu god, many Buddhists also worship him, or at least ask for his help when they are in trouble. Officially the god of war and revenge, he is probably more fervently worshiped and more genuinely feared than any other god in Ceylon. He has an A-1 reputation for protecting his congregation and, according to numerous legends, exhibits a genial playfulness in devising disconcerting mishaps for those who violate his minor taboos.

Most Ceylonese try to make at least one visit a year to his temple, not necessarily during the August ceremonies, but at some other time of the year when the settlement in the jungle is sparse, quiet, and suitable for meditation. Everyone manages to get to Kataragama sooner or later, it seems. My Hindu friend in the police department went one week, my wife’s Muslim jeweler another, my Buddhist tailor a third. It is considered especially commendable to walk all the way to Kataragama, and many Ceylonese do walk there, sometimes carrying a large, colorful, paper-andwood contraption in the form of an arch, which indicates that they are fulfilling a vow.

Our driver on the trip to Kataragama was a young Singhalese who told us that his name was Elvis. (He told Englishmen that his name was Winston.) His driving got a little erratic as the day wore on, and he finally admitted that, though a Buddhist, he was taking no chances with Kataragama and had been fasting all day. While we were eating, he warned our friends and us about certain taboos that visitors to the Kataragama territory were supposed to observe. One local rule forbade announcing an expected arrival time; that, said Elvis, was an infallible way of being delayed. Another dangerous thing to do was to speak disrespectfully of Kataragama. A Buddhist in a Renault immediately remarked that, the weather being ideal, we ought to arrive at Kataragama by six o’clock. And a Christian woman in a Vauxhall said that all this fear of Kataragama was nonsense; she had been there the previous year and had ridiculed the entire procedure, but nothing had happened.

When we finished eating we got into our Volkswagen and followed the other two cars. Suddenly it began to rain. It rained only for five minutes and, we learned later, only within a few hundred yards. As we carefully rounded a curve on the slick road we saw that the two other cars were now facing us. The Renault’s hood was stuck halfway into a rock fence, and the Vauxhall was resting its side on the same fence. It turned out that the Renault had skidded and started turning in the road, and to avoid hitting it the driver of the Vauxhall put on her brakes. By the time the cars stopped skidding they had smashed into the fence. No one was injured except the scoffing woman, who had a painful but not serious bruise on the spot where an irritated parent might have been expected to spank his child. It took a long time to improvise pulling cables, disengage the cars, and tow them to a garage. We eventually reached the temple, just before midnight, and although all of these coincidences and superstitions can be logically accounted for, no one in our party made any more jeering remarks about Kataragama.