Did Pandialy Walk on Fire? The Refutation of an Ancestral Mythological Genesis as a Quest for Knowledge and Acknowledgement

  • Loreley Franchina (Autor/in)

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In La Réunion, the fire-walking festival is an annual ritual cycle wherein, after eighteen days of preparation, abstinence and fasting, some Réunionese Hindus walk barefoot across a pit filled with hot embers. For a long time, practitioners claimed that Draupadī, best known as Pandialy, had walked on fire as mentioned in the Mahābhārata, locally named Barldon. The epic provides a dramaturgical backbone to the festival. However, some devotees now refute the ancestral mythological explanation of Pandialy walking on fire as the genesis of the fire-walking ritual cycle. They attribute this to a misunderstanding made by their ancestors, who came from India to La Réunion during the nineteenth century, and allegedly conflated two different epics: the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Historical sources and scholarly research attest that the confusion cannot have been made by Réunionese, since a cult of Draupadī/Pandialy also exists in India. This refutation of previous interpretations is also based on the premises that there is such a thing as the original, pure version of a myth and a hierarchy between text and orality. Examining the ritual, the epic and the myth, this article shows that the refutation of the myth of Pandialy walking on fire in La Réunion reflects a quest for knowledge and acknowledgment.