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.
I started to feel woozy, but collected myself. The photos don’t convey what it feels like to watch this.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.