India has always been the epitome of a country with a vast cultural diversity, and with such a vast diversity comes instances of what we would consider ‘weird’ customs and practices. While some of these traditions have a connect with some folklore or history, the others are carried out just as a continuum of years of practice.
The word festival itself cheers our mood and brings an eruption of of celebration and frenzy. However there are some festivals that are celebrated in very notorious manners, which feel more like pain and punishment, rather than a celebration. One may wonder why a festival should be associated with such painful customs like walking on fire, being trampled over by cows, or even being hung by hooks; further, why would a sane person willingly go through such an atrocity? But when you see the determination and belief of the participant, questions are almost redundant, but just a true blind faith to be observed that leaves you bewildered with its intensity. While most of these festivals are celebrated regionally, some are celebrated throughout the country.
Testament of faith
History has given us unimaginable examples of extremities a man can go through, to prove his faith. The concept of sacrificial ceremonies is one of them. While some cults adhere to animal sacrifices, there are many others who test their faith by self-sacrifice or mutilation. The sacrifice is not just a ritual for these believers, but holds two very significant reasons. Firstly, it is the symbolism of undying faithfulness towards their deity, and secondly, it shows the extremity a man can go through to quench the thirst of his own insatiable desire. Though there are many festivals and places where these ceremonies can be witnessed, a few of these festivals deserve a special mention.
The Bharani festival
The annual Bharani festival at the Kodungallur Bhagawati temple in Kerala, is celebrated in the month of Meenam. The festival commences with animal sacrifices and continues with ‘Kavu Theendal’. During this ritual ‘Vellichapads’ (oracles of the Goddess), dressed in red run around the temple in a state of trance, waving their sickle-shaped sticks (symbolising the sword used by the Devi to slay the Demon Daruka) in the air. The oracles consider themselves as Yoginis (feminine force of the Devi). During this state of trance, these oracles overrun the temple premises and smite their heads with their sticks, to please the Goddess with their blood. This site of ecstatic women dancing in frenzy, wearing red covered in blood can be quite a mystical and thrilling experience, yet frightful at the same time.
While Bharani festival is strictly regional, Garuda Thookkam is observed in many parts of South India. Garuda Thookkam is a ritual art form wherein the devotees hang themselves on a tall pedestal like structure with the help of sharp metal hooks piercing their bodies. They enact as Garuda who quenched the thirst of the Devi with his own blood after slaying off the demon Daruka. Though both the stories above hark back to the same incident, yet both have a difference when it comes to sacrifice. Whereas the former shows a connection with Devi from within (oracles themselves enacting as Goddesses), the latter celebrates the relation of servitude between the devotee and the Goddess.
Another such festival that celebrates faith is Thimithi. Originating in Tamil Nadu, but celebrated in many parts of the world like Singapore, Fiji, Sri Lanka, etc., Thimithi is celebrated a week before Diwali in the Tamil month of Aipasi, in honour of Draupadi Amman, a.k.a Draupadi in the North of India. Whereas Draupadi is just one of the main characters of Mahabharata in the North, she is revered as a Goddess in the South. The festival of Thimithi commemorates the event of purification of her by Agni where she walked through the ‘yajna’ to prove her adherence to Dharma and walked out afresh and unharmed. The devotees of Draupadi Amman re-enact the event and walk through this fire pit (specially prepared for the event), barefoot. It is believed that the true devotee of Draupadi Amman will walk out of the pit unharmed. Devotees not just participate themselves, but also make their own children participate in this testament of faith.
Testament of sportsmanship
Every year on the eighth day of the equinox, devotees gather in number at Kateel Devi Durga Parmeshwari temple near Mangalore in Karnataka to please Devi Durga by participating in Agni-Keli. Devi is worshipped in this temple as Sri-Devi “the supreme Goddess in her Rajas form that rules all the three lokas”. Just like in olden times, where sport of swords and weapons were held in arenas to please the royalties; the devotees participate in this fire sport of Agni Keli to please the Queen of Goddesses.
A small arena is set up where the devotees are divided in two groups and are supposed to throw burning palm fronds at the opponent. Each player gets only five throws, and thus the sport lasts no more than half an hour. Precautions are taken by the temple authorities, wherein no person intentionally harms the opponent out of personal grudge. Anyone who gets burnt during the sport is sprayed with water of Kumkumarchane (holy water used to worship the Goddess).
Though this ritual carried out for centuries by the devotees seems daredevil and a risky sport, yet the devotion for the Devi and the enthusiasm with which it is participated, makes this festival a true celebration of spirits.
Testament of mourning
One can easily connect to Muharram with the phrase – festival of mourning. Though this festival is celebrated with joy and feast by some Muslims, however, the Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, the grandson of Muhammad and his entire family. The Shia mourning begins on the first night and continues for 10 days. The mourning also known as maatam, displays the acts of lamentation like chest beating and self-infliction of pain by acts like flagellation and face slapping. The act of flagellation includes striking of chest with palms, striking of backs with chains and swords, and cutting of foreheads with knives to inflict pain and shedding blood – a symbolism of the atrocities borne by Hussein by the forces of Umayyad Caliph. Some of the Shias believe that the mourning ritual will help them to salvation on the day of judgement, while the others bear such a pain to feel the atrocity their Imaam went through while walking down the path of righteousness. During the whole act of maatam, the practitioners can be seen in a trance of devotion, and claim to not feel pain.
Whereas these are few of the rituals that are celebrated for their own reasons and stories, yet the intensity of the faith with which they are celebrated is what marks them as festivals. These festivals show us that we, the people of faith, are not just tied with the bonds of virtues and celebrations, but also equally to the hardships and atrocities of the fables of the past, making us a part of these beautiful stories.