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Habba: A Tango of Culture and History

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The very foot he raised / to dance the dance / in the little hall of Tillai – it claimed me as a slave.


Appar, the seventh-century Saivaite saint and Tamil poet, wrote thus of Shiva’s dance. The lord in the form of a dancer - Nataraja with his four arms and raised left foot represents the source of all movements within the cosmos. His posture and gestures represent creation, protection and destruction. Nataraja is primarily the representation of the endlessness of time. This truth about the endless cycle is conveyed in the form of dance, with a rhythm.


Any ritualistic practice with its origins unknown portrays the endless cycle of time. I have witnessed one such ritual since my childhood and so have my father and his father before him.


In spring of every year, when native Shola trees bloom in The Nilgiri mountains, situated in the Western Ghats of Southern India, close to two thousand families assemble at a picturesque valley, blooming with white flowers of the Elaeocarpus tree, for a traditional ritual at a small shrine. The rigorous burble of the brook next to the shrine and the blue mountains around, rich in vegetation, have stood witness to this ritual of fire walking year after year.


Legend has it that a sage lived here, in this very valley many hundred years ago and the villagers gave him food through the course of his stay. But no one knows when this custom began and why it was commemorated. Oral cultures with no written forms to document their lives pass the tales and songs to their descendants, but not the causes or sciences or specificity of dates. Perhaps generations before us knew the infiniteness of time and felt the insignificance of marking it.


On this particular Monday morning of the spring day of the Aalani month in the Lunar calendar, close to a hundred men, young and old, belonging to one major lineage assemble by the shrine to walk barefoot on a shallow trench, around twenty-two feet long, filled with embers. The men belong to the villages neighbouring the valley. From the preparation of this ritual to the commemoration, there is a harmonious arrangement that has passed through time, like a sweet melody handed over from one generation to the next.


As a child, the sudden spurt of excitement on this particular Monday puzzled me and as I grew, I gradually became acquainted with it and later delved into the buzz.


For hundreds of years, on this particular Monday, in the early dawn hours, the fire walkers gather around the trench, pick the dainty branches of an ageing Naval tree that was cut months ago and pile them in a bundle in the pit. Then they use the palm-sized quartz stone that was handed to them through many generations to stoke fire. The sparks catch the dried, dainty branches and soon engulf them. As the intensity of fire builds, bigger trunks are added to it. At that dawn hour, the movement of men around the fire coordinates with the men from the bygone centuries, like electrons in their orbit around the central nucleus, the fire. The many electrons in a single orbit do not interact with those in the other orbits, yet the synchronism is absolute, seeming to emphasise a wise philosopher’s aphorism, Sum, ergo cogito (I am, therefore I think).


For the onlooker, the firewalking ritual may be a predicament between science and spirituality, but as someone who has witnessed it for a few years, I think it is beyond the perplexities that the human mind can discover. A stone’s throw away from this valley is a groove that has a megalithic dolmen. The usage of quartz stone here may be an indication of the age of this ritual - does it date back to the times when stones were used to stoke fire? Or is it a symbolic way to honour the humble beginning of life on the hills?


As morning melts into the balmy early noon hour, the men prepare themselves for the ritual. The rhythm of the age-old bamboo flute, accompanied by the beat of the drums and enthusiastic cheering of men, set the perfect backdrop for the movement of many pairs of feet as they enter the shallow pit filled with embers that have partly cooled since dawn. As their feet tap on the embers to the distinct rhythm as old as the overlooking mountains, minuscule balls of ash fly around in the same harmony, holding onto the same tune.


The consuming heat takes a slow grip on the valley, only to be revoked by the powerful tempo of the moist spring wind. Earth and fire entwine to set the stage, and water from the stream and damp wind applaud fiercely as space stands witness. The five elements cavort as humans celebrate; it is only them, the forces of nature who stand testimony to the origins of this ritual.


This event may be an occurrence of religious reverence, but the pulse of the crowd beats as one, assimilating the feeling of fraternity that resonates as a uniform melody. Nataraja, depicted in the human form, within the flaming halo, symbolises movement within the cosmos. Kenda habba, as this Firewalking custom is called in the Baduga dialect, is a parallel representation of that movement. Habba here is a celebration, not the menial one, but the fervent, impassioned one honouring the cosmic dance in the human form and the human movement within the cosmos. At that moment, divinity and humanity amalgamate to the soaring fervour of the crowds gathered. Aren’t divinity and humanity like the clouds and rain? Isn’t it true that one can’t exist without the other?


Dancers say when lost in the rhythm, they feel the light of divinity moving through their bodies. Seated there, among the onlookers, I transcend this moment in space and time. I am my ancestress, clad in white, my headgear in place, silver ornaments on my neck and wrists, swaying to the eternal tune that echoes across this valley. The silhouette of the hills will change, the people will morph, customs and rituals may transform, but I am here, one with the ether, dancing to the perpetual sounds and beats. Many years from now, I hope my descendent sits here to witness this moment and find her tune.

Monisha Raman considers coffee and muggy coastal wind essential for survival. She is the absent daughter of the mountains. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines. 

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