- by Manali Deshpande
2022.02.24 (Vrindavan Today News): Like every year, a priest in a village of Mathura will again walk through the fire on the eve of Holi. Monu Panda, 28, a local priest will jump into a 15-foot high bonfire again this year. It will be the third time that Monu will walk on fire this year.
For over 500 years, pandas have walked through fire in the village Falen of Mathura, and people here claim that no one has ever been injured in the ritual. The pandas don’t wear anything to protect them from the fire. This is being done by the Panda families over the years and Monu will continue the tradition this year too.
This tradition denotes the age-old story of Bhakt Prahlad and his aunt, Holika. As per mythology, Bhakt Prahlad, a devotee of Lord Vishnu was saved from the flames by the grace and blessing of Lord Vishnu Himself. His Aunt Holika tried to immolate Bhakt Prahlad by placing him on her lap on a burning pyre.
Falen is a remote village located in the interior of Mathura district. Located at a distance of 40 kilometers from the district headquarters in Mathura, this village has maintained the age-old tradition of walking through the bonfire on every Holi.
To know more about the ritual and understand the practices of the festivities associated with the Panda Mela, a team of ‘Vrindavan Today’ reached Falen on 16th February, on a Full Moon day (Purnima). This is the day when Panda sits on the month-long meditation and the pole is placed to mark the beginning of the festival.
A VT reporter interviewed the priest (panda) along with the local villagers about the ritual and the practices for walking on the fire.
Monu Panda, who will walk on fire this year, spoke to ‘Vrindavan Today’, in detail. According to Monu, his village is the actual place where ‘Holika’ was burnt. Mythology has it that Prahlad had defied his father and insisted on worshipping Lord Vishnu. His father, the demon king Hiranyakashipu, asked Holika to sit in a pyre with Prahlad, knowing that Holika had a magical shawl that was used to protect her from the fire. She wore the shawl and took her nephew in her lap as the pyre was burnt. With the mercy of Lord Vishnu, the shawl flew off her shoulders and wrapped itself around Prahlad, saving the boy by reducing Holika to cinders.
At Falen, the preparations for the Holi Festival have already started. On 16th February, the Pole was erected in the temple grounds, to mark the beginning of the month-long festival. It is celebrated like the Diwali Festival in the village. For this festival, people color and decorate their homes. Villagers invite their relatives and friends to join the celebrations. Villagers cook savories to treat their guests.
All the villagers gather at one place with drums and sing folk songs of Holi like Rasiya, Chaupai, Ghamar etc. Women of the village dance and sing devotional songs. The full village is devoted to Lord Krishna during the period. The priest who walks through the fire is considered as Bhakt Prahlad, it is because of his blessings, the pandas walking on the pyre don’t get hurt.
Satish Fauji, a resident of the village said, “Like last year Pandaji will not disappoint the thousands who converge here to watch the spectacle. He will accomplish the feat for the third consecutive year, taking on the task; he has inherited from his grandfather.”
A few of his uncles, too, have tried their hands at it in the past, with varying levels of success. The fire jump has made holi celebrations of their village in Kosi Kala famous in the entire region. By 4 am on the day of the festivity, thousands of people gather at the village to see Panda’s walk through the raging flames, which flickered up to more than 35 feet. The bonfire is prepared out of cow dung cakes and the prickly stems of berr, the Indian plum. Villagers claim that this tradition is kept alive for 500 years.
Wood is not used in the bonfire, which, after it is set alight, is as tall as it is wide. At the predetermined auspicious moment, Monu Panda will walk into the pyre, taking 15 steps in to cross the blaze. The ritual symbolizes, according to the locals, the triumph of good over evil. The crowd chants mantras to boost his morale.
Talking to ‘Vrindavan Today’ Monu Panda said, “It is not easy to keep the tradition going. It requires a lot of meditation and strengthening of body and mind. For 40 days, I lived in the Prahlad temple, located in the village. I can’t leave its premises till the time I perform the task of Holi, be there a marriage or death in the family.”
“No food grain is allowed and one is required to survive on fruits and milk. Most of the days and nights, I spend in meditation and, before the final task, I bathe in the Prahlad Kund and perform Puja as part of sacred ritual, before walking through the fire”, said Monu.
The Holika pyre is built with a diameter of 35-40 Ft and a height of 15 Ft. Crossing the 35 Ft flames seems to be an impossible task. However, Monu believes that after taking bath in holy Prahlad Kund, he is blessed by Lord Narsimha, who gives him the courage to cross these flames unhurt. He said that when he is in the middle of the Holika fire, some divine force helps him to come out of it.
Villagers believe that the priest who walks through the fire gets the energy from Bhakt Prahlad. It is because of his blessing that we don’t get hurt.’ the priest said.
Till eight years ago, members of 14 adjoining villages used to appoint the person to cross the bonfire. Now the tradition is observed within four families who take their turn after mutual agreement to perform the ritual.
Falen stares up at a dried and dug up Prahlad Kund, ahead of the Panda Mela
The villagers are concerned about the condition of the pond where the panda takes bath, before walking on the burning pyre. The work on the renovation of the Prahlad Kund has been started very recently. Due to this all the water from the holy Kund has been drained. Currently, there is no water in the Prahlad Kund due to the restoration. The villagers have dug up a small portion of the kund and filled it with some water, so that the Panda can take a bath every day in it, as a part of the tradition.
Villagers pointed out the negligence towards the area surrounding the holy Prahlad Kund. They requested the concerned authorities to develop the area with greenery. They also showed concerns towards the pathetic situation of the road connecting Falen village with other towns. This makes it very difficult for the relatives and tourists to come to reach their village to take part in the age-old Mela.