Welcome to Week 9 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit the Melrose Temple, a 150-year-old Tamil temple in Joburg’s northern suburbs, during its holiest festival of the year.
I’ve put off writing this post for a couple of weeks because I wasn’t sure where to start.
First, the basics:
The Melrose Temple, also known as the Johannesburg Melrose Shree Siva Subramaniar Temple, was founded around 1870 in what is now the Joburg suburb of Melrose. The original temple was built by ethnic Tamils who came from India to South Africa’s Natal colony as indentured laborers. When their indentured servitude ended, the Tamils migrated north and found work at a commercial laundry along the Jukskei River. (This was 20 years before the founding of Johannesburg.)
The Tamils began to practice their faith on the land surrounding the laundry, and eventually the laundry’s owner gave them the land to build their temple. The temple remains in the same spot today.
The Melrose Temple as it looks today — it’s been rebuilt a couple of times since 1870. I need to go back again sometime when the temple is less crowded. There were thousands of people there the day I went, which made it difficult to get decent photos of the temple itself.
If you’re familiar with apartheid and its history of segregation and forced removals, then you’ll appreciate how remarkable it is that this temple and its congregation have survived intact — in one of Joburg’s wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods — for nearly 150 years.
The Melrose Temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the most important Tamil deity. I visited the temple during Thai Poosam Kavady, the annual festival honoring Murugan.
I was amazed and overwhelmed by what I experienced at this festival. I’ve thought about it a lot and I even met with two devotees from the Melrose Temple this past weekend, to educate myself about Tamil culture and the significance of Kavady. I’m still not sure I can provide a sufficient explanation to accompany the photos I’m about to show.
In the briefest possible terms, Thai Poosam Kavady (or Kavady for short) is a ten-day festival that falls during the Tamil month of Thai (which has nothing to do with Thailand). During the ten days, devotees of Lord Murugan choose to fast in a variety of ways, leading up to the final day when the devotees “carry Kavady” as a way of offering devotion and prayers to Murugan. A Kavady is a symbolic yoke, which the devotees decorate in different ways with flowers and food. Some of the devotees go into a trance, channelling the spirit of Murugan or other gods. Many devotees also choose to pierce their skin with pins and hang offerings — flowers and fruit and small tins of milk — from those pins. (Read more on Wikipedia.)
The Melrose Temple holds the largest Kavady celebration in South Africa: Between 7,000 and 10,000 people attended this year.
I’m sure this all sounds a little confusing but hopefully it will make more sense with the photos. By the way, the photos could be disturbing to some readers. You’ve been warned.
Thai Poosam Kavady at the Melrose Temple
The day of the festival was a blazing hot Sunday. The sun was already beating down when I arrived at 8:00 a.m. I walked past a field filled with dozens of massive pots, bubbling over open flames. Everyone who attends the festival receives a hearty meal of vegetarian biryani.
When I reached the yard of the temple, I took off my flip-flops. (Shoes aren’t allowed.) Hundreds of people had already arrived and were gathering in the field on the other side of the temple.
Devotees line up with their Kavady offerings at the beginning of the day. Kavady is celebrated differently in different parts of the world. In South Africa, most devotees use marigold flowers and limes in their offerings and many of them wear yellow.
Devotees prepare offerings to Murugan by cleansing metal vessels with smoke and then filling the vessels with milk. They carry the vessels in a Kavady, in a symbolic pilgrimage around the temple, and then pour the milk over one of the deities as an offering.
The drumming and chanting started an hour after I arrived. Incense burned, forming fragrant clouds above thousands of marigolds. The devotees began to enter into trance.
A devotee, already in a trance, receives his piercings. The devotees often put their tongues out — a commitment to be silent while carrying Kavady — and/or get piercings through their lips and tongues.
The man on the right in the photo above (with a beard) is Lushen Pather, former chairman of the Melrose Temple. He found this picture on Instagram and contacted me, and then he and his friend Vinesh Dorasamy met me last weekend and explained lots of things about Tamil religion and Kavady. I’m really grateful to them.
The devotee with his piercings. Three is a holy number so the number of piercings is always divisible by three. Devotees receive up to 108 piercings.
A close-up of his back. The small brass receptacles hold milk inside.
I started to feel woozy, but collected myself. The photos don’t convey what it feels like to watch this.
I think this man, whose name is Niren Moodley, was just entering his trance at this moment.
Niren mesmerized me and I wound up following him the whole morning.
Niren stands in front of his chariot as fellow devotees pierce his skin. More on the chariots later.
The devotees who go into trance are often moved to channel their deity and bless other devotees. Side note: These two men have spectacular heads of hair.
Eventually, the devotees organize themselves into lines in the field and begin a symbolic pilgrimage around the neighborhood surrounding the temple. They then re-enter the temple grounds and circle the temple at least three times. (Remember, everything is in threes.)
A young child joins the procession.
Once the procession was in full swing, I spotted Niren again. Niren is one of the devotees who pinned himself to a chariot carrying his deity and pulled the chariot the whole way around the block and back around the temple.
At this point Niren has already pulled the chariot a hundred meters or so. But he is preparing for the hardest part — dragging the chariot onto the street and pulling it uphill for a very long distance. Remember, the chariot is connected to him through pins. In his skin.
Pulling the chariot uphill past a power station. Niren also has coconuts hanging from the piercings on his back. The boy next to him is pulling a stereo speaker playing music.
The man dancing in front of Niren is named Shaun. It’s Shaun’s job to channel the spirit of the mother of Lord Murugan, to motivate Niren to keep going.
At one point Niren went down on all fours and struggled to stand again. Shaun put his forehead against Niren’s and began to scream and dance. Soon afterward Niren stood up and continued.
Then the road levelled out and the worst was over.
I followed Niren and his crew back through the temple gate, then watched him run his chariot six times around the temple. Lots of other devotees were circling the temple too. It was a noisy kaleidoscope of colorful chaos.
A solitary woman carries her Kavady around the temple.
I was especially impressed by the women pulling chariots.
This woman is bad-ass. She looked well under five feet tall and literally motored, pulling her chariot like it was weightless.
A band of drummers accompanying a devotee. Gotta love this guy’s tee-shirt.
I’m running out of words at this point.
I think this is my favorite chariot-running picture.
That’s pretty much it.
With the exception of the heat and sunburn (definitely wearing a hat next time), I loved everything about this experience. It was incredibly moving and inspiring. I especially loved the giant plate of delicious vegetarian food that I received at the end (sorry, too hungry to take pics) and didn’t have to pay for. Kavady is all about giving and receiving.
This is the same guy from earlier, with the great hair.
Thanks so much to my friend Gail for introducing me to the Melrose Temple and this amazing festival. And thanks again to Lushen and Vinesh for taking the time to sit down with me and explain Kavady. You guys are awesome.
Everyone is welcome to attend the Kavady festival at the Melrose Temple, as long as you’re respectful and follow the etiquette like removing your shoes, etc. The temple’s events calendar is here. You can visit the temple at other times too but it’s best to arrange in advance.
The Melrose Temple is located on 2nd Street in Melrose. For more information, call +27-79-696-6445 or +27-11-728-6590 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all of my #Gauteng52 posts and check out the interactive #Gauteng52 map.
Great post Heather. I’ve been to kavady so many times since I was a kid, and its always special. It makes me think a lot about faith and devotion, and even though I’m not a religious person, its a deeply spiritual and moving experience. Are you sure the Melrose one is the biggest kavady in Africa? Always thought it was the kavady in Tongaat, KZN.
That’s exactly how I felt, too. The guys from the temple told me this is the biggest one, I think because it’s the only one that’s held on Sunday? Maybe they’ll chime in here 🙂
As usual well written and super insightful – I do however love the levels of “we’re all just humans trying to get by in this world” reached by the statement T-shirt- I laughed out loud. There is always one! Thank you for making my work week that much more interesting with your blog Heather.
Hahaha, I’m glad you appreciate that moment as much as I did. Thanks for the comment, Louis.
Dear Heather…wow you have captured it perfectly, I remember seeing you there taking these pictures, I wondered who you were and where you came from. Thank you for this it truely shows our culture from a different light and reminds us of who we are, where we come from and what a beautiful rich culture we have…we are truly blessed. It takes devotion and love for our divine to be where Niren and Shaun are today. The guy called Shaun is the priest at the temple I go to, how beautiful you capture our divine mother. I will definately make sure he sees this. Thank you again for these beautiful memories. Take care, kind regards, Michelle
Oh, thank you so much Michelle. I was really concerned that I wouldn’t do a good enough job explaining the festival so your comment really means a lot. Please give my best to Shaun – he was amazing to watch!
Such a great post. Thanks for sharing this with us. R
Good job not passing out. That was intense just to read! But I’m glad I did, thanks for widening my world.
Haha, I’ve never been congratulated for not passing out before. Thanks for the compliment!
They have a similar festival (if not the same thing) in Southern Thailand. And yeah, every time I see photos piercings, etc, pulling stuff, hanging stuff, yeah, I feel ill. I don’t think I could ever endure it (yes, I am a wimp).
Haha, I hear you. I’m guessing they do have the festival in Thailand too – apparently the biggest one in the world happens in Malaysia.
I like the vegetarian aspect though! 🙂
These pictures are truly powerful. I appreciate what you have tried to do here however as a tamil who constantly worships at this temple and has carried karvady myself, I do not feel that your blog has truly captured the truth behind karvady. It is a complete sacrifice of all you have and all you can give to the lord Muruga. It is a sacrifice for all the lord has given us in abundance and not about what the people look like but more about how spiritual this day is and about how much heritage the temple holds to the many devotees who worship there.
Thank you though for having an interest in our culture and this is by no means an attack on you or your writing it would have obviously created some emotion due to the fact that it is about religion. I personally think it should have been more focused on the true essence and beauty behind the day.
I also however understand that this is your opinion and experience.
Ps: Come to April karvady
Thanks Prishaniee, I appreciate the comment. I did my best but obviously it’s difficult to really the capture the essence of something like this as an outsider with no previous knowledge of the religion. I’ll try to do better next time. I am planning to come in April, as long as I’m in town!
I suggest you watch the videos clips of brakevillage kavady in tongaat. Its the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and people from all over the world make a pilgrimage here onve a year. Its shocking that a lot of south Africans dont know this actially exists in our country. Devotees are upward of 30 000 and over 1800 kavadies carried on a single day. A truly awe inspiring site. As a murugan devotee especially in south africa, its a must to visit thia place at least once.
Thanks so much Murugan – I’ll check it out. I looked at quite a few photos of Kavady celebrations around the world while I was working on this post – totally incredible.
Could you please tell me where I can buy the piercing pin or have them made in gold
Just rereading this blog from last year. You can get the pins from Swadeshi on Central Ave. Fordsburg. (opposite the Orient Hotel)