You must understand that the relative orderliness of modern processions is a result of being nearly two centuries under the watchful eyes of British authorities. Earlier visitors saw it in the raw. So famous had the self-immolation become by the 14th century, that it was described, probably second hand, in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. That the "myth" had reached as far as Europe so early suggests that a lot of lives had been lost in the process. But a better - in fact, first hand - account exists in a more cogent Travels: that of Sebastião Manrique, an Augustinian friar from Portugal, who visited Orissa in 1628 or 1629. I shall leave it to author, Maurice Collis to summarise Manrique's account:
He goes on to describe the festival which took place in June, the crowds of pilgrims, the rich offerings, the curious processions of triumphal chariots, the maniacal excitement, the yogis and devotees heavily manacled who on reaching the temple door freed themselves of their chains as if by occult power, the shouting, the wild chants, the scurrying naked mob. As the great car of Jagarnath approaches, the hysteria reaches its climax, and some of the yogis and pilgrims, seized with frenzy, a foam on their lips, fling themselves beneath of wheels and are crushed to death; others thrust into the muscles of their backs hooks attached by ropes to a wheel on the top of a pole and are whirled round, like flying boats at a fair, swinging over the roadway, their blood dripping on the worshippers below, and continuing thus to swing until they are dead.Not unexpectedly, the good friar saw in the spectacle the delusions of hell, and I am not prepared to contradict him.
How mainstream all this may have been is something one may debate. Unlike monotheism, Hinduism has neither canon nor creed. A broad expanse of texts are revered as scriptures, but none is held as an absolute authority such as is accorded to the Bible or Koran. Its teachers are mystics and gurus seeking the inner light, and priests of a vast jungle of religious practices which have grown up in the fertile soil, an oil-and-water mixture, as C. S. Lewis found it, of high theology and crude heathenism. But linking it all together is the doctrine of pantheism, and the seeking of union with the divine. Usually the latter involves emptying the mind and/or torturing the body, but there have always been fringe movements celebrating the actual destruction of the body.
But if he sensed he had entered the domain of the Devil in Orissa, you can imagine his reaction to the festival at Saugar Island, at the mouth of the Hoogli. At that period, most of the temples had been deserted due to the depredations of slave-raiding pirates. Nevertheless, the Hoogli is a final distributary of the sacred river Ganges, and where better to seek union with the godhead than where the holy river loses itself in the sea? Thus, one particular festival used to attract great crowds from all over Bengal, and their mood was one of extreme exaltation.
In a ruined temple they would have their heads and beards shaved, after which they would wash in the temple tank and anoint themselves with oil. Thus purified, both men and women entered the temple and prostrated themselves before the idol in the semi-darkness. There, the combination of music, conch shell trumpets, and the scent of flowers and incense produced a mesmerising effect on their minds. Prone on the ground, with tears gushing from their eyes, they begged acceptance from the deity.
Finally, convinced of their acceptance, they rushed wild with happiness to the beach, and fed themselves to the sharks! So accustomed to the ritual were the fish that they would strike at shadows, and soon the waters of the holy river were red with the blood of a feeding frenzy. And yet, sometimes there was an anticlimax. Towards the end of the festival, the sharks may well have eaten enough, and turned away from the supplicants, who thus returned home in deep despair, because God had rejected them.
(I presume that Saugar is the same as the modern Sagar. In that case, it would appear that the holy dip in the water is still be performed on a huge scale, but the sharks are no longer in evidence.)
From six centuries earlier, and the other side of the world, came another witness. Xuánzàng, whose name is also spelt Hsüen Tsang, was a Chinese monk who made a remarkable 16 year journey to India in order to collect Buddhist texts. It would have been about A.D. 635 that he encountered the Tree of Death in front of the principal hall of a temple in Prayâg, now known as Allahabad. To the right and left of it lay piles of human bones, for people would climb into its branches, and there a strange obsession would come over them. They would hear the voice of a spirit calling them to jump off and commit suicide, so that he could bear their souls up to paradise. Who knows how this custom started, but one man at least was prepared to bring it to an end.
When Xuánzàng was present, a priest well up in the Brahmin hierarchy approached, and was led by the temple priesthood to the foot of the tree. From there he addressed an immense crowd of holy men, pilgrims, beggars, and the like, explaining to them that there was no spirit, no passage to paradise, and they were all dupes of a murderous lie. But in the middle of his sermon, he faltered, his face became abstracted, and he began to gaze in agitation into the branches.
Suddenly he was seen to shake off his companions, and turning quickly, to climb the tree and mount into the higher branches. Looking down he again addressed the crowd. "I hear the spirit," he cried, "and I hear the musicians. They are calling upon me to follow them to paradise. They hover about me. What I said was a lie. The spirit is here. It is no criminal fable. This tree is the very gate of Heaven. Only from here can one enter it. Oh! The spirit whispers to me again. He speaks of salvation, eternal happiness."He jumped. But his friends below piled their coats under the tree to catch him. I wonder if he ever thanked them for it.
Whether Buddhist or Taoist, the Chinese are seldom given to religious frenzy. Xuánzàng was not impressed. To his mind, the tree was the habitation of an evil and delusive demon - and, again, I am not in a position to refute it. Perhaps someone can speculate on a psychological explanation (or can they?) but, as Collis put it:
Definitions change with the centuries, but the shift from one set of terms to another leaves the mystery still a mystery. The freaks of the psyche can no more be explained than the Devil.Early visitors to Malabar, in southeast India, heard tell of some remarkable royal customs. In the early sixteenth century a Portuguese traveller was told how the king of the province of Quilacare (what is the modern name or spelling?) was allowed to reign only twelve years. At the end of that time, a great festival was held at a particular temple, where a great scaffold, spread with silk hangings, was erected before the idol of the principal god, I presume Shiva, and much food was provided for the Brahmin priests, The king would bathe in a sacred tank, pray to the deity, and mount the scaffold.
Then, before the eager eyes of the spectators, he would take some sharp knives, and cut off his nose, ears, lips, and various other members of his body, until, before he could faint from loss of blood, he would cut his own throat. His successor was required to be present at the suicide, there to be acclaimed the new king, knowing that he would be required to perform the same ritual at the end of the next twelve years.
Every 11.8 years, when Jupiter was in Cancer, the capital of Malabar, Calicut held what was known as the "Great Sacrifice", the exact details of which, including the number of victims, were recorded in the royal archives.The festival used to last 28 days, and the last one took place in 1743, culminating at the Tirunavay Temple on the north bank of the Ponnani River, where warriors were invited to assassinate the king and claim the throne for themselves. But there was a catch. The king was defended by 40,000 troops. The would be assassins were expected to run a gauntlet of spearmen half a mile long.
The king waved his sword. At the same moment a great chain of massy gold, enriched with bosses, was placed on an elephant at his side. That was the signal. On the instant a stir might be seen half a mile away at the gate of the temple. A group of swordsmen, decked with flowers and smeared with ashes, has stepped out from the crowd. They have just partaken of their last meal on earth, and they now receive the last blessings and farewells of their friends. A moment more and they are coming down the lane of spears, hewing and stabbing right and left at the spearmen, winding and turning and writhing among the blades as if they had no bones in their bodies. It is all in vain. One after the other they fall, some nearer the king, some farther off, content to die, not for the shadow of a crown, but for the mere sake of approving their dauntless valour and swordsmanship to the world. On the last days of the festival the same magnificent display of gallantry, the same useless sacrifice of life was repeated again and again. Yet perhaps no sacrifice is wholly useless which proves that there are men who prefer honour to life.During the festival of 1695, an English visitor, A, Hamilton arrived, and though he did not witness the actual ceremony, he heard a description similar to the above. He was also told that, on that occasion, one of the assassins very nearly succeeded. He was also informed that the Great Sacrifice replaced an earlier one in which the king mounted a scaffold and cut his own throat.
Although some have cast doubts on whether an earlier ritual of regicide ever occurred, it should be noted that Hamilton's account of the earlier custom in Calicut matches exactly with the Portuguese description, nearly two centuries before, of the custom of the subject kingdom of Quilacare. The accounts are almost certainly independent of each other, and are not the sort of thing a European would invent.
While the killing of the king may indicate have some religious origin, it is hard to understand what motivated the suicide of the would be assassins.
You might also be interested in my earlier post entitled, "When it doesn't pay to have the courage of your convictions".
References: The experiences of Manrique and Xuánzàng come from The Land of the Great Image by Maurice Collis (1943), which I have previously cited with respect to the burning of the Buddha's tooth.
The rituals in Malabar can be found in The Golden Bough by J. G. Frazer (1911), the relevant section of which can be read here. Frazer's sources were: F. de Magalhães, A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar (original article here), A. Hamilton, Account of the East Indies, and William Logan, Malabar (Madras, 1887).