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The Tanks: An Unofficial History of the Activities of the Third New Zealand Division Tank Squadron in the Pacific

IV. Indian Fire-Walkers

IV. Indian Fire-Walkers

Members of the Ordnance Corps who were unfortunate in not having an opportunity of seeing the Indian fire-walkers in Fiji have asked that an account of the strange ceremony be included in these pages. The following description is by a member of base ordnance depot.

The New Zealand soldier whose sojourn in Suva covered the annual period of the Indian fire-walking festivities undoubtedly had the privilege of seeing one of the most spectacular but strange and pagan ceremonies he could ever wish to behold. This feat, being one of the major religious rites and customs of the season, is performed by inferior or low cast Indians in the month of August each year. For a whole week prior to the great day Indians who were chosen to 'fire-walk,' along with their relatives, made their preparations in no uncertain manner. Those of us who were camped near to the Indian settlement would hear the incessant, weird tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap of an Indian drummer, morning, noon and night, during that week. It is understood that fasting was the order of the day for them and page 164that the fire-walkers spent much of their time preparing their feet for the ordeal. No doubt, also, they indulged in certain drugs and nerve sedatives of their own concocting.

The culmination of this week's customs is the act of fire-walking, which is done on the Sunday afternoon, despite weather conditions. The author was present at two ceremonies. August 1941 was the first, when it had been raining for some time, turning the paddocks into bogs, much to the misfortune of the Suva ladies who spoilt their shoes and silk stockings getting to the site; and secondly, in August 1942, which on the contrary was dry and very hot indeed.

Early on this Sunday afternoon it was the practice of the fire-walkers to visit a secluded valley, about two miles from the site of fire-walking, for the purpose of donning coloured dyes and making themselves generally gruesome. So many interesting and weird things were committed here that the 'Pig-sticking ceremony,' as the New Zealand troops called it, is quite worthy of mention. On their arrival at this spot they first of all bathed in the little mountain stream. While their skin and clothes were thus wet, coloured dyes—yellow, orange, red—were freely bespattered in powder form over their faces, arms and bodies. A fire was then lit to tighten the skins of their make-shift drums. It was useful, too, in drying their coloured robes.

The next stage of their adornment was the use of polished metal skewers, about the size of a steel knitting needle, ornate at one end with silver work. These were passed over a spirit flame and then pushed through various fleshy parts of their bodies. Favourite places were—through one cheek into the mouth, thence out of the other cheek; the fleshy part under the chin; anywhere round the waist-line of the body. The operations were performed quite bloodlessly, strange to say, while the patients sat motionless without a whimper. To see one of these enlarged pins forced through the flesh almost made one's blood run cold.

After bedecking themselves with flowers and green foliage. a band formed a procession to the place of the fire-walking, where a shallow pit had been prepared containing a huge heap of burning wood embers, the remains of several cords of wood. At the arrival of the noisy fire-walkers and accompanying Indians, the majority of whom had by this time worked themselves up to a frenzy, attendants with long-handled rakes spread page 165out the glowing cinders over the full length of the pit, about 20 to 25 feet. The heat from this burning mass was intense and overpowering, even at several feet distant from the pit. It was this huge charcoal fire through which they were to run.

There appeared to be very little to entertain the waiting crowd except one particular old Indian who succeeded in capturing the people's attention with his drum and curved drumsticks- He rolled his eyes, put back his head, and played with such fervour and speed that the crowd threw the poor old fellow pennies by the score. Finally, several noisy Indians emerged from their place of waiting, first of all to march round the pit in single file shouting and beating drums and even benzine tins, as if by their great noise they could defy the power of the heat. Next, they filed past an Indian carrying a container of yellow liquid which he sprinkled on them with a small branch of greenery. Lastly, coconuts were broken and placed at each end of the fire. All these preliminary formalities, although of great importance to the Indians, held no significance for the large majority of spectators.

The pit was then completely encircled with Indians, apparently chosen for their capacity for shouting and making noises. These waited for the appearance of the fire-walkers. The crowd was by this time tense; at any moment the fire-walkers would come out; seconds seemed minutes. Then the silence was broken. At the sight of the first victim the Indians recommenced their noises and shouting. What a din! Ten or 12 fire-walkers approached the pit calmly and with determination, going over the hot bed at a slow run. Whether or not they made any screams of agony it cannot be said. Utterances from the performers would be more than drowned by their noisy Indian friends. It would also be difficult to tell whether their perspiring faces in such a marked and coloured condition showed any expression of pain.

The performers, still adorned with their metal skewers, passed over the runway several times, thus showing their complete indifference to the heat, and each time they were accompanied by the same beating of tins and drums until the feat seemed quite commonplace. In August 1941 one outstanding performer remained in the pit prancing around for almost half a minute. On leaving the other end, however, he collapsed into the arms of page 166friends waiting to receive him. In a further part of the, ceremony some fire-walkers were seen to run through the fire carrying babies-in-arms. All came out quite safely with no accidents.

At the end of the proceedings a few of the fire-walkers were asked to show their feet, which they did quite willingly. All that could be seen was the tough skin of the sole of the foot, well blackened, but showing no blisters, scars, or any other mark that would normally be caused by a person's foot coming in contact with glowing charcoal. They had nothing to say, and although questions put to them were answered briefly with 'yes' or 'no,' the impression one gathered was that they did not desire to talk, that they seemed mentally fatigued, and that a great nervous strain had been borne. It certainly was an amazing test; in fact, almost supernatural.