Monsignor Despatures reports that, as the Bishop of Mysore in India, he had witnessed the following facts:
“It was March 1921. One day, I received an invitation from the King, for a fire experiment at the Palace. I was very incredulous. I arrived around six o’clock in the evening. The King’s employees had dug a trench in the park two metres wide and four metres long. They had filled the trench with red charcoal, at least twenty-five centimetres thick. I approach this furnace. I examine it carefully. I didn’t want to be duped. I can assure you that it was real fire. Nearing it, one was taken with effluves of appalling heat.
“Near the furnace is a Muslim from the North of India. He is the hero of the evening.
“A few moments later, the King and his suite arrive. High dignitaries, Europeans from the city and a few Indians of mark are present. There are about two hundred and fifty of us. We take place about twenty-five metres from the brazier.
“The Muslim comes to prostrate himself before the King and goes straight to the fire. I think that he is going to go into the fire. But no. He remains at about a metre from it and invites a Palace employee to walk in the fire. He signs to him to advance. He speaks to him. The other doesn’t move. Suddenly, he takes him by the shoulders and pushes him into the fire. For the first few seconds, the Indian tries to leave the fire. Then, suddenly, his face, which had been displaying fear, begins to smile and he starts to traverse the trench slowly in the sense of its length. His legs and feet are bare. When he leaves the fire, other employees surround him, asking him what he had felt. And soon, one, then two, then five, then ten Palace servants pass into the furnace. Then, it is the turn of the Palace musicians, among whom there are several Christians. They parade three by three in the fire with their instruments and their music sheets. I notice that flames surround them, brush them, without even setting fire to the sheets of paper.
“I estimate that two hundred people passed in the brazier. Beside me there are two English people: the Kingdom’s Chief of Police, who is a Roman Catholic, and an engineer. They ask the King if they may attempt the experiment. The King tells them that they may if they assume responsibility for their action. They go in completely clothed. They traverse the furnace. When they return to my side, I question them. They tell me that they felt that they were in the brazier, but that the fire was not burning them.
“The King rises to put an end to the seance. The Muslim is writhing on the ground beside the trench of embers. He looks as if he is suffering atrociously and asks for water. A Brahmin tells me: ‘It is because he took the fire’s burns on himself.’
“I can attest that there was neither trickery nor hallucination. The spectacle that I saw was very real. According to the Indians, these spectacles are frequent. I do not believe it. In our four missions, I am the only person to have seen this. It is said that in the South, during certain festivals, a yogi walks on fire. But he can very easily coat his legs with some substance. Here, it was not the same thing at all.”
Such is the statement by Monsignor Despatures who is very trustworthy. It is added to a quantity of others about fire dancing which takes place in certain regions of India, in Polynesia, on the Fijian and Reunion islands. In most cases, it is one man who confers immunity to the others. But we do not know how or why.
On the Reunion island, that is to say in a French departement, similar walks can be seen every year, notably during Lent. It is the Indian community of the island which organizes these manifestations. They are each time the occasion for great popular gatherings.
These Indians are of the Malabar race and almost all are baptised into the Roman Catholic religion. The Church does not seem to object to the celebration of these rites where Catholic religion and Indian traditions are mixed. The ceremonies unfold on Sunday afternoons and begin by the sacrifice at nine o’clock in the morning of a cabri which is the name given to the goat in the departements d’outre-mer [overseas parts of France].
The preparations are finished the day before, floral decorations, compositions made with bananas and mangoes, decorations of bright materials and palms inside the temple, surmounted by a sort of cupola like the ones on the Malabar Coast in India.
And of course, a long pit six metres by three has been dug before the entrance to this little temple. The pit has been filled with logs which have been set alight.
When the walking begins, around four o’clock in the afternoon, the logs have been consumed, leaving embers one metre deep that the slightest breeze stirs to glowing.
These walks on fire are always preceded by a long ritual procession with flowered chariots and groups of “penitents” with violet marks on their foreheads who go singing and chanting towards the pit. They sprinkle themselves with cool water contained in big metal flasks and a woman in a trance precedes them.
Still chanting, she uncrosses her arms banging them violently.
The walkers, on the day that Louis Pauwels is there, are eight in number. They continue to pray and sniff at the flowers and aromatic plants, which are supposed to protect them from the fire, right up to the pit. Mr Pauwels writes:
“I approached the pit around which several hundred people had a lot of trouble finding a good place, which gave rise to a lot of scuffling.
“In the first row, but at least six metres from the pit, the Prefect of the Reunion had taken place with his wife and visiting personalities.
“In fact, there where I was, one metre fifty from the pit, the heat was such that I had to keep my eyes closed and it was not possible for me to remain more than a few seconds in the same spot.
“When the first three walkers advance onto the embers, the scuffling increases and the crowd noisily manifests its admiration, mixed with a sort of sacred fear which is translated by prayers and even louder invocations.
“It cannot be said however that the public is in a trance. The European and Creole public in particular follow the walk in the same way that they would watch a high-level athletic meeting.
“The walkers’ behaviour is rather diverse. Some seem to advance in fear onto the carpet of fire and progress with difficulty, as if they feel certain pain.
“Others walk on the fire with an expression of restrained joy, which is very impressive.
“One of them in particular, who is holding a bouquet of flowers between his joined hands, parades with particular slowness, visibly in prey to interior jubilation.
“He will pass four times over the fire, the seven others three times only.
“At the end of the ceremony, I questioned these men who speak only Indian and Creole. It is therefore difficult to obtain precise information.
“I only learnt that they had fasted for eighteen days and practised complete sexual abstention during this period.
“I also attentively examined their feet. Apart from some dirt from mud and ashes, they were absolutely unharmed.
“Leaving the pit, the walkers purify their feet in the earth sprinkled with water.
“Half-an-hour after the last walker had left the pit, I placed a big green banana leaf on the embers.
“It dried up in a few seconds, then started to burn…”
To be continued.