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Footloose in Sri Lanka: Fire walking and poisoned arrows - Part 1
Living out of suitcases, in spite of the corporate benevolence of 5-star living; business travels can be pretty predictable and monotonous. For this reason, during my career I have often taken leave to explore the territories which are not on the tourist map and tread 'the path less travelled'. The non-touristic search for exotica, by footing it on my own has given me many a 'Eureka' moment!

My trip to Sri Lanka was fuelled by a series of travel books in the series: ‘New York on $10.00 a day’, ‘Paris on $10.00 a day’ etc. At an airport, I picked up ‘India, Nepal and Sri Lanka on $5.00 and $ 10.00 a day’. These books were meant for the back packing budget travels of the roaming Hippies. I learnt a lot about fascinating facets of Sri Lanka, which are generally not highlighted in the usual travel guides. 

The island country has had its name changed many a times. Going by our ancient epic Ramayana, it appears that the island has been called Lanka, right from its hoary past. When I went to school, it was known as Ceylon, a name given by the British colonial rulers. After independence in 1948 the country adopted the name, Sri Lanka. But in between it has had other names, too. 

In pre Vasco da Gama days, Cochin was the world’s busiest port. Arab spice traders heading for Cochin once supposedly went adrift, and touched land at this island. They were enchanted by the peaceful green island and called it ‘Serendip’.  ‘Seren’ in Arabic and Persian means ‘peaceful’ and ‘dip’ is obviously ‘island’. So this island has given a new word to the English language: ‘serendipity’, thereby meaning ‘a happy chance discovery’! Even today, one finds in Colombo and elsewhere establishments with names like ‘Hotel Serendip’ or ‘Serendip Stores’. 

Thanks to its lush greenery, Sri Lanka is often referred to as the Emerald Island. Even more romantically, it is also described as a ‘Teardrop of the Indian peninsula, in the Indian Ocean’.

The ancient city of Anuradhapura, an imposing World Heritage Site is even today hallowed by the Buddhists from all over the world. The centre of devotion is the Maha Bodhi tree which was planted in 3rd century BC by Emperor Asoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra. She had brought the sapling from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. 

The Anuradhapura Bodhi tree is remarkable, as it is the longest living tree planted by any human being: almost 2400 years old! Noteworthy is also the fact that when the original Bodhi tree under which Gautam Buddha attained nirvana, died – a sapling from the holy tree at Anuradhapura was sent to be planted at Bodh Gaya at the original spot where Gautam Buddha sat. So the Bodhi tree’s roots have done a full circle – from Bodh Gaya, India to Anuradhpura, Ceylon and then back to Bodh Gaya, India. 

Apart from Anuradhapura, the ancient Buddhist city of Nuwara Eliya has overpowering sculpture and is a statement of the grandeur of the erstwhile kingdom and its vision. It also has some of the best golf courses in the world. 

The cosy hill station of Kandy with its lake, also presents an awesome spectacle at the Temple of The Tooth every evening. Amidst loud beating of drums and chanting, a tooth of Lord Buddha is exposed. The frenzy of the devotees is trance like! The vibrant Kandyan dances are colourful and spellbinding. The picture postcard serenity of Kandy was recently marred, when Buddhists burnt shops and houses of Muslims.

Then there is the impregnable rock fortress of Sigriya, populated by an evil fugitive prince who was given to an indolent life – as evident from the frescoes of dance girls on the cliff walls. Folklore also has it that it was one of Ravana’s hideouts! 

The devout of all faiths climb up Adam’s Peak, which at the top has a footprint. Buddhists believe that it is Buddha’s; Hindus believe that it is Shiva’s, Muslims and Christians believe that it is Adam’s. For a change, we see religious harmony here and no one claiming exclusive rights to the sacred footprint! 

Sri Lanka has much to recommend itself: natural beauty – cars part through a curtain of yellow butterflies, with pink lilies dotting paddy fields on both sides. The country is dotted with ancient dagobas (stupas) and wild life sanctuaries. However, here I wish to narrate my stumbling on fire walking and a hostile Stone Age tribe. 

A local suggested that I visit Katargama, which seems to be their equivalent of our Tirupati. I headed for this town in southern Sri Lanka. This once again is a pilgrimage town for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and the local tribes. I was not prepared for what I saw at the temple dedicated to Skanda Kumara. It is believed that the idol has so much of prathiba, that an ordinary devotee would turn blind. So there is a heavy curtain between the devotees and the idol. Only the priest can go beyond the curtain and perform the puja. 

It must have been a special day: With folded hands, thousand of devotees lined up on both sides of the path to the temple footsteps. There was an ominous silence in the air. Suddenly the drums started beating and as the crescendo built up, an ash laden head priest, obviously possessed, ran up the passage shouting ‘Hari Hara, Hari Hara’. And the crowd echoed his ‘Hari Hara’s, too. Close by was a pit full of burning charcoal. The scene was awesome enough, for an European to rush towards me, to ask if it was safe enough to stick around! I assured him that we were safe.

After the priest came out, the devotees one by one, chanting mantras walked over the red hot embers, as an act of self purification. And they came out unscathed and exalted. (See inset).

 It has been explained that: "The smouldering red hot embers do not burn or cause bodily injuries. These traditional practices create wonder and spiritual belief in the supernatural. The pulsating rhythmic beat of the drums and haunting melody of the Nadaswaram fill the air and take one into a world of spirituality.’ 

When I returned to Madras, over a period of time I discovered that fire walking was commonplace in many holy spots in South India, too. Not only at holy spots, even on late CM Jayalaitha’s birthdays, some of her devotees walked on fire, too! The less courageous rolled on the ground in ang pradakshina.

Later, I vaguely understood the Physics and the Psychology of fire walking, as explained at a Motivational workshop. Firstly, when one is in a drummed-up frenzy (through whatever means!), there is nothing like fear or pain. Secondly the trick is to walk with the cadence of the chants. In this rhythm the sole of the feet perspires enough for its moisture to act as insulation between the sole of the feet and the embers. Thereafter, when one leaps it gives enough time for cooling of one foot after the other. Easier said than done, though!

Fire walking classes for the secular are more common than we think. Just one search on Google under ‘fire walking training’ reveals so many courses going on right now.

Talking of Sri Lanka’s official chief firewalker Mr. Mohotti, the Katargama website states: ‘Mr. Sarath Mohotti's exceptional abilities have been acknowledged and documented in Sri Lanka's leading Sinhala and English newspapers. Television appearances and interviews with Mr. Mohotti appear regularly on Sri Lanka's television networks. Mr. Mohotti not only performs the extraordinary rite, but is also its most vigorous exponent in Sri Lanka and, increasingly, around the world. Since 1979 he has conducted public fire-walking rites abroad by invitation in Indonesia (1979), Japan (1990), Dubai (1991), Pakistan (2000) and India (2001). In recognition of Mr. Mohotti's lifetime achievements, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Sri Lanka in 2002 has cited Mr. Mohotti as a National Treasure.’ 

Travel is such a learning experience, particularly when one takes the less trodden path! 

(To be continued)

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