Here in the Arcot Province this phenomenon of fire-magic is so common that I have not hitherto thought it worth recording. The fire-walkers of Arcot are famed throughout the South, and there are many of them. Even the little town of Tiruvannamalai, where I reside, has a quarter where several mud houses hold a whole tribe of them. These people are chiefly potters by trade. Once a year they stage their show, under the leadership of the High Priest of their own temple. They have a little temple perched on the summit of a hill. They walk in procession to the temple at about the middle of the year (the date is fixed by the calendar of religious festivals) and then perform their magic. They are illiterate uneducated people, simple, living close to nature, as their houses are on the outskirts. I questioned the High Priest very closely about their secrets, and this is what he told me:
"Everyone who is to take part in the fire-walk--and all members of our people (we are Harijans, outcastes) usually engage in it by their own desire--everyone has to prepare for forty days beforehand by leading an ascetic life. They must eat once a day only, and not engage in sexual intercourse. They must take solemn vows in the temple, under my direction, at the beginning of the forty days, to abstain and to keep their minds engaged in prayer as much as possible. If a man attempts the fire-walk and gets scorched, we take it as a sign that he has not kept his vows, and generally when he is accused he confesses that it is so: but the majority walk successfully through the ordeal and vindicate our ancient custom."
I asked to what did he attribute this power of resisting the heat. He replied: "It is through the power of faith, devotion. We have intense faith in our own deity, whom we worship, and we dedicate this festival to him. We believe that he protects us from the fire in return for our devotion and asceticism."
"Why do you carry on this custom?" I asked.
"It is a demonstration to show the power of spiritual things over material," he answered. "It strengthens our own religious faith, and may affect others. To us it is a proof of the existence of our deity."
-- Notebooks Category 15: The Orient > Chapter 2: India > # 159