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Experience Fire Walking Festivals In Fiji

By Shane Hussein Posted 21 May 2014

The act of walking barefoot across searing hot coals in the name of faith may seem like a painful ritual to many westerners. The threat of second and third degree burns on the soles of ones feet is enough for many people to never attempt the ceremony.

That said, in the tropical paradise that is Fiji, the fire walk is an important cultural custom for both the Indigenous Fijian and Hindu populations (among Fijians of Indian descent). Often used as a rite of passage, the fire walk is considered to be a test of a man’s bravery and faith and is a fascinating spectacle that every traveller on a Fiji vacation must experience.

To enlighten you a little more of the traditional custom of fire walking, there are two main ceremonies in Fiji that have very similar rituals but very different origins. The first one is the indigenous ‘vilavilairevo’, while the second is the Hindu, South Indian fire walking festival at the Mariamma Temple.

Photo: Mark Harris

Indigenous Fijian Fire walking ritual

Once a sacred ceremony restricted to the small Fijian population on the island of Beqa, just south of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, the fire walking ritual known as ‘vilavilairevo’, literally meaning ‘jumping into the oven’, is today a major tourist attraction and performed in many resorts around Fiji.

According to Fijian folklore, local chiefs of the indigenous Sawau people were given the power by the gods to grant others in the tribe the ability to walk across fire without being burnt. Descendants of the chief (tui qalita) today serve as the priests overseeing the annual ceremony and many fire walkers are from the local Beqa villages of Na Vakaisese,  Dakuibeqa, Dakini, Soliyaga and Rukua.

Preparations for the vilavilairevo fire walking festival begin many days in advance. Participants, mainly representatives from the afore mentioned Sawau villages, abstain from sex and fast from eating coconuts for up to a month. Should they break these rituals, they are likely to experience the wrath of the gods and receive severe burns during the fire walk.

Photo: Brent Narbey

In traditional Fijian culture, the ceremony is not as simple as walking across the hot coals. Before the act begins, a long fern branch called a waqa-bala-bala containing the Spirit God is laid across the pit of coals to bless the fire. Once the Bete gives the shout “Vuto-O”, the fire walkers approach the pit and the waqa-bala-bala is removed. As the fire walkers cross the pit they are careful not to burn the fern tree leaves attached to their ankles. These are known as drau-ni-bala-bala. These anklets are then removed and buried in the fire with vasili roots. After four days these roots are dug up and are mixed with water to be eaten by the fire walkers. 

Today, you can experience the vilavilairevo at many of the larger hotels along the Coral Coast, including the Beqa Lagoon Resort. That said, such an important ceremony only scratches the surface of Fiji’s amazing cultural customs and rituals. For more on Indigenous Fijian folklore, check out the Fiji Airways blog post “Fiji Myths and Legends”.

Mariamma Temple fire walking ritual

Considered to be one of Fiji’s more spectacular cultural festivals, the South Indian fire walking festival is held every year in either July or August and takes place in many Hindu temples around Fiji.

If you are on a Fiji vacation and want to experience the ceremony, the most popular location to see the spectacle is at the Mariamma Temple in Suva. Lasting between three to ten days, worshippers (largely Fijian descendants of southern Indians) meditate to the goddess Maha Devi and train themselves to abstain from sex and eating meat. They also clad themselves in yellow and red cloth – colours which are said to cleanse the physical body and spiritual mind.

For the Hindu population, the fire-walking festival coincides with the full moon that appears in late July, early August and the actual ritual of the fire walk only comes at the climax of the week-long festival. On the final day, the worshippers gather at Suva Point to bathe in the sea. Hindu priests then proceed to pierce the tongues, cheeks and bodies of the worshippers, as well as smear yellow turmeric on their faces, believed to protect the firewalkers from disease.

At around 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the final day, the firewalkers begin to make the three kilometre walk to Mariamma Temple. Along the path, they dance themselves into a trance said to protect them from the pain of the fire walk. Some worshippers even choose to be whipped during the ceremony.

Photo: Arun Ramu

At around 4 o’clock the worshippers arrive at Mariamma Temple where a large crowd and a hot bed of ash and coals are there to receive them. For many Hindu-Fijians, the physical act of the fire walk is considered an act of devotion and sacrifice to Maha Devi and a decorated idol of her is positioned at the pit where she will watch over and protect the ceremony. Hindu fire walkers also believe in the spiritual gesture of walking across hot coals in order to achieve a balanced life, self-acceptance and wisdom. For each worshipper, the process of walking across the hot coals is repeated five times to the sounds of chanting and drumming.

Fijian’s are well-renowned for their devotion when it comes to sacred religious events. Indeed, Fiji’s large Christian population recently celebrated Easter by participating in the mammoth Fijian Cross Walk between Suva and Nadi. Read all about that ceremony in our Celebrating Easter in Fiji blog post.

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