One of the most fascinating experiences on a Fijian holiday is witnessing the traditional firewalking ceremony. This is where the men of the village walk barefoot across a bed of hot stones, seemingly without burning their feet.
The story of firewalking in Fiji begins around 500 years ago, when there were only around 50 people living in the village of Nakarovu in the high land of central Beqa Island, off the coast of Viti Levu. It is said that a young man, Tunaiviqalita, went in search of an eel to give to an elder, but instead found a small man – a spirit god – wrapped in tapa cloth. The small man, in exchange for his survival, promised to give Tunaiviqalita the gift of controlling fire, allowing him to to walk on white hot stones.
Tunaiviqalita believed he had been given a powerful gift by the man and his ability to walk on white hot stones has since been passed through his blood line in the Sawau Tribe on Beqa Island. As legend has it, the descendants are today, as promised by the small man, still able to walk on fire!
The descendants of Tunaiviqalita can be found in the villages of Rookwa, Dakubeqa, Dakuni, Soliyaga and Naceva, however many will travel around the islands performing this brilliant act at hotels and village art centres.
Firewalking is a sacred celebration that keeps the culture of Fiji alive for future generations. Part of Fiji’s charm is its close connections to community, tradition and symbolism, and this legendary celebration is a must-see.
While this special celebration is a way of life for many generations living in Fiji, firewalking takes a great deal of preparation. Men are chosen as representatives for different villages, and 10 days prior to a celebration, they must segregate themselves from females and stay away from eating coconut. If they fail to do this, legend states that they will be punished with severe burns.
The fire pit where these men will walk is dug out, being 12-15 feet in diameter and 3-4 feet deep. Large river stones are collected and placed in the pit, filling it up. Eight hours before the ceremony, a log fire is built over the top of the stones, heating them up.
When it’s time for the performance, the firewalkers are led to the arena accompanied by dances and chants. Leaves and vines are grazed across the stones to prepare the pit. The men then start their journey across the smoldering stones.
Once every man has crossed, a bundle of grass is placed in the centre of the pit and the men huddle together while chanting a song. Each man wears a band of tree ferns around their ankle for the performance and these are then thrown into the fire pit. Days later these bands are recovered from the now cool pit, ground up, mixed with water and then eaten by the firewalkers.
A Fijian firewalking celebration is a mix of firewalking, costume, singing, dancing, acrobatics, stunts, storytelling, fighting and more. It truly is a spectacular experience and one you will never forget. From the moment these powerful, muscular men appear in their brightly coloured costumes against an impressive backdrop of the lush green gardens Fiji is so famous for, you’ll be amazed.
Firewalking has been practiced by many people and cultures all over the world, with the earliest reference dating back to Iron Age India (1200 BC). Modern physics may explain the phenomenon, suggesting it’s a combination of poor heat conduction and the amount of time a foot is in contact with the stones – however there remains something magical about the ceremony. Firewalking is not just a right of passage for some islanders, it’s a test of individual strength and courage, or, in religion, as a test of one’s faith.
Other Fijian ceremonies
Storytelling is a popular and important pastime in Fiji that helps to keep alive the myths from old religion. When in Fiji, it’s important to pull up a stool or take a seat and enjoy the ceremonies that help explain Fijian history and life. The culture of Fiji is a tapestry of indigenous Fijian, Indian, European, Chinese and other nationalities, and today’s practices not only offer insight into Fiji’s indigenous communities but into the modern culture of the beautiful archipelago.
Fijian indigenous society is very communal, with great importance attached to the family unit, the village, and the land. The varying ceremonies performed around the islands strengthen tribal and family ties, and reinforce traditions and ancient myths. The ceremonies most famous in Fiji include:
The Kava Ceremony
In this ceremony, everyone is invited to drink from a bowl of kava, or Yaqona, Fiji’s national drink. Made from the pulverised root of a member of the pepper family, it’s believed to have medicinal qualities, and will leave you feeling mellow and a little tongue tied (kava has a numbing effect on the tongue). Legend has it that the ceremony came from Tonga, where the plant sprang from the grave of a Tongan princess.
The Meke ceremony embraces traditional song and dance to tell of legends, love stories, history and spirits of the land. Music is woven into the fabric of Fiji, and can vary from a blood-curdling spear dance to a gentle and graceful fan dance. The Meke combines an orchestra (Vakatara), who sit on the ground and sing or chant, and the dancers (Matana), who tell stories with their movements.
A LOVO ceremony is a celebration of food, cooked in the earth. Think of it like an Australian BBQ, only a little more smoked and steeped in tradition. Taking around two hours to cook, you’ll likely enjoy cassava (tapioca), kumala (sweet potato), yam, taro, pork, lamb, chicken or fish. The feast is covered with banana leaves or coconut stalks to provide insulation.
If you’re visiting Fiji, be sure to add another dimension to your journey by experiencing a traditional firewalking ceremony, or many of the other ceremonies steeped in traditional Fijian culture.