So, not to be a jerk or anything, but I’m pretty sure I did something on Sunday that you did not do.
After some sightseeing and shopping, Has, the World Vision staffer who is our guide and handler here, asked if we’d rather shop some more or swing by a Hindu temple to watch a ceremony that was taking place. The latter easily won out.
About an hour after her seemingly harmless question, we found ourselves in the middle of crushing throngs of thousands of people, watching men and boys walk across 1000-degree coals.
Being the only foreigners there, we very much stuck out. And, as a result, we were also afforded special access. Some generous police officer waved us inside the ropes, where we got to sit next to the families of all the men who were walking. At first, that seemed like a great idea. Once the ceremony actually started, it turned a bit crazy. As the crowds rushed in to the center and the police seemed suddenly absent, we held our ground as best we could.
We were at the Munneswaram Temple complex, which dates back 1,000 years. That temple is dedicated to Shiva, one of the three main deities in the Hindu trinity, known as the Transformer or the Destroyer. The temple’s main annual festival, the Munneswaram Festival, lasts for 28 days and includes an evening of firewalking, borrowed from the Timiti Festivals at other Hindu temples in this part of the world.
Hinduism, currently about 15% of this primarily Buddhist country, has a long and somewhat difficult history. The mythical origins say that Sri Lanka was formed when Vayu, the god of wind and air, humbled his friend, Mount Meru, by blowing off his top — the summit landed in the ocean south of India and became Sri Lanka. Historically, the Hindus here descended from the Tamils of India, and they still practice the Tamil form of Hinduism.
The religion survived on the island, even when the Portugese Jesuits practiced forced conversion to Christianity. That was followed by forced conversions by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans. Yet Hinduism remained strong, in part by syncretizing with the majority Buddhism. In my next post, I want to think out loud about this religious partnership, and what keep Christianity from that.
Back to the firewalking. Watching it happen — the frenzy around it, the sense of excitement and fear, the intense heat that we could feel even 10 meters away — was profound. A follower of Christ who witnesses it can’t help but wonder, Is my faith anywhere near that intense?