Easter and indenture in colonial Natal

Since the arrival of the first Indian indentured workers in 1860, our forebears endured dreadful working and living conditions with little time off from the repressive life of the plantations, the coal mines, railways and domestic service. When the masters took a holiday for Easter, indentured workers slotted their prayers into the dominant Christian cultural calendar.

Muhurram, Ta’zieh processions early 1900s in Durban. Historically, Christmas was not celebrated on the plantations as the majority of workers came from rural parts of India where Christmas was not a big event. Bizarrely, the colonials referred to the festival of Muharram as the ‘Coolie Christmas’.

Published Mar 30, 2024



Our Good Friday diaries match perfectly. We start with a celebration of the Lord's passion at the Catholic Church. Next is the historic communion at the Amman temple in Isipingo Rail. Rounding off the day will be an interfaith iftaar at the Kingsmead cricket ground with our Muslim brothers and sisters observing the Ramzaan fast.

We are both ancestrally Tamil Hindus but our faith behaviours come from the diversity of our upbringing and rooted in the significance of Good Friday and Easter, to Indian indentured people in colonial Natal.

From Muharram to Theemedhi (fire walking) to the annual pilgrimages of the venerated temples at Isipingo and Mount Edgecombe, among others, this holy time has special meaning.

Since the arrival of the first Indian indentured workers in 1860, our forebears endured dreadful working and living conditions with little time off from the repressive life of the plantations, the coal mines, railways and domestic service. When the masters took a holiday for Easter, indentured workers slotted their prayers into the dominant Christian cultural calendar.

During the early years of indenture, the make-up of identity was fluid and multi-faceted. Religious divides and caste identity that bedevil modern India were far less evident on the plantations. The jahaji-bhai (ship brother) camaraderie on board indentured ships saw the development of a hybrid art, culture, and language that cast aside social hierarchies of class and caste consciousness.

A devotee at the Umbilo Shree Ambalavanar Temple observes Theemidhi, 1980s. Picture: 1860 Heritage Centre

University of KwaZulu-Natal's Professor Goolam Vahed, in his doctoral dissertation prophetically called this a “pan-Indian” identity.

The genesis of this wider faith vision lies deep in antiquity. The village traditions of the indentured brought with it a deep veneration and respect for the natural world. Long before brahmanical reformism of Hinduism, the village culture of the indentured migrants from all religious denominations was the core belief.

In the early years of indenture, the festival of Muharram and the worship of village guardians or Goddesses known as Gramadevata and Kula Deivam traditions flourished. Indentured workers wanted to re-establish the life they led back home by re-enacting their village traditions to give them solace from the harsh reality of plantation life, and keep their ancient faiths alive.

New Bethesda Church in Carlisle Street Durban, 1950s. Picture: 1860 Heritage Centre

Muharram was a key cultural expression for indentured workers whether Muslim or otherwise. The European colonials characterised this as "Coolie Christmas". Vahed writing on “Constructions of Community and Identity among Indians in Colonial Natal, 1860-1910”, noted that: "Despite the difficulties of indenture, Indians set about re-establishing their culture and religion in Durban. The most visible and public expression of ritual was the festival of Muhurram, which played an important role in forging a pan-Indian identity within a white and African colonial society."

To most of the indentured, the observance of Muhurrum was a fleeting escape from the brutal realities of bonded labour. The most spectacular observation of Muhurram was seen with the thaziyas representing the tombs of the martyrs of Kerbala.

A Muslim worshipper walking on a bed of hot coals in the early 1900s carrying a baby adorned with marigolds. Devotees are physically unaffected by the coals. This ritualistic practice is generally associated with the Hindu worship of Mariamman. The confluence of ritualistic practice among religions was a fairly natural part of community life from the early years of indenture until the 1970s. Picture: Local History Museum

It is quite plausible that the chariots pulled by devotees of Lord Muruga during the popular Hindu kavady festivals draw inspiration from the thaziyas, more especially in their ornate and towering design. Muslim reflections of saintly martyrdom together with Hindu ritual practice merged into a show of community well into the twentieth century until a narrow conception of Islamic worship filtered in, notably resourced by Saudi Arabia since the early 1979s.

Within a generation, Islam in South Africa was gradually stripped of its Indian heritage to be replaced by an Arab variant distinct from the historic Asian and African traditions. No longer do large processions flow onto the streets of Durban and elsewhere. The ritualistic chanting of Muhurram, however, remains etched in the memory banks of people born in the 20th century.

Another example of the diverse Easter traditions is the annual Draupadi firewalking festival in Pietermaritzburg at the Sri Siva Soobramaniar and Mariamman temples. Hundreds participate in firewalking where devotees walk barefoot across a ten-metre pit of red-hot embers.

The Mariamman Temple in Isipingo Rail was a privately owned temple built by Mr Narainsamy in the later 19th century. The temple was built over a puthu or ant hill that is believed to be the home of a sacred snake goddess in the form of Mother Mariamman. Picture: SS Singh Collection at the 1860 Heritage Centre

In Durban, tens of thousands of Hindus make the annual pilgrimage to pay homage to Mariamman at Isipingo or Mount Edgecombe in the main, showing gratitude to the Goddess for good health and prosperity. Isipingo historically drew thousands of Indian workers arriving by train in the early years, and later by special buses like the Inner Circle from Chatsworth.

Mount Edgecombe had the added attraction of entertainment in the form of Therukoothu or the six foot dance. Devotees from far flung plantations arranged a “special train service” just so they could all take in the festival activities. Therukoothu performers were given celebrity status very much like rock stars.

The indentured Christian community in colonial Natal received detailed academic attention in Professor Joy Brain’s seminal study on, "Christian Indians in Natal 1860 – 1911".

She provided great insight into historical and statistical records on the early Christian worship among the indentured. According to Brain, Christians made up 300 of the 6 445 migrants who arrived in the first ships, up to 1866. Of these, 299 were from Madras and one Henry Nundoo from Calcutta. Altogether, there were 2 155 Christians in the entire period to 1911 with almost all of them embarking from Madras.

There were 65 Christians aboard the first indentured ship, the Truro, that landed on November 16, 1860. A French Tamil-speaking Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste Sabon, met many of the indentured workers on arrival and recorded the following: “Though Indians are not perfect – far from it - there are many among them who are more zealous than many other Christians elsewhere ...".

From being a minority faith behind Hinduism and Islam, evangelism and conversions have swelled the Christian flock. Pastor JF Rowlands was one of the earliest encouraging conversions through the Bethesda movement. Among the original Christian indentured are the families who re-established the iconic, Our Lady of Vailankanni, church in Chatsworth harking back to their Tamil homeland in the deep south of India.

The Magazine and Railway Barracks razed to the ground by the forced removals of the apartheid Group Areas Act had, among others, the Telegu Baptist Church. The modest building survives to this day minus the congregation which back in the day sang their hymns in mellifluous Telegu and Tamil, reading from bibles written in those Dravidian languages.

An outside observer will be amazed at how this holy Good Friday and Easter weekend brings a peaceful convergence of so many ancient and venerated religious practices. Those descended from Indian indentured workers and the merchant community go about their worship without any fuss, but it is worth remembering that these faiths survived everything from indifference to vicious colonial assault. The fact that diversity of worship can flourish is a tribute to the thirty years of freedom and democracy we celebrate this year and an enlightened constitution that enables everyone to pray without hindrance.

Selvan Naidoo and Kiru Naidoo volunteer on the 1860 Heritage Centre and UKZN Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre boards, respectively. They are co-authors with Paul David and Ranjith Choonilall of The Indian Africans available at www.madeindurban.co.za.


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