Panguni Uttiram / Brake village temple - South Africa

It’s the day before Kavady and I’m arriving at the temple around noon out of curiosity to observe some of the preparations. The whole local community have gathered at the temple to decorate the kavadies, the chariot and to prepare the food. My mother in law is a very liberal Hindu and doesn’t do a lot of Hindu stuff (that I know of). She is a member of a women’s club though – and through this club volunteered to do some work. Group pressure I’m sure. They are peeling potatoes and other vegetables for the food that will be served the next day. Big buckets are everywhere. The food is given by sponsors, families and businesses… They’ve been lucky this year, and covered the need for the next days mass feeding.

I see a lot of people are coming with trays of fruit and milk. I noticed that one woman had a slab of chocolate and no milk – maybe it was milk-chocolate and a compensation for the milk. A majority of the people come as families and one of the members carries the tray. They are all walking three rounds around the temple with the tray and then lining up in queue to go into the temple. The fruit and milk is for Murugan. I’m thinking – it’s such a small temple and hordes of people with trays… so where does Murugan keep all the fruit? Then I see people coming out from the temple still with a loaded tray… Murugan is apparently picky and choose only one fruit and bless the rest. As they come out from the temple I see them offer the fruit to the crowd outside. A blessing on top of all the vitamins must be good for both body and soul – so I accept a banana and chow it.

A group starts chanting and playing their small drums and cymbals. They are standing just outside the temple – so I wonder if this has got some specific significance. Nothing else in the whole picture is changed, so I take it as warming up for the next day. They seem to speed up the rhythm... and I’m getting quite impressed with their energy and stamina. How much faster and for how much longer can they keep going? The Hindu hymns must have many verses – although it sounds very repetitive! People are still doing their laps around the temple. It seems that the fruit bearers are walking a bit faster now. Affected by the upbeat chanting maybe? I’m contemplating taking the lap time to compare… but reject the idea. It would probably be unethical and disrespectful at the same time – I’m ashamed by my own wacky thoughts.

Before leaving, my mother in law introduces me to one of the people in the Kavady committee - Bala. Bala is married to one of the vegetable peelers, a woman in the women’s club, and seriously involved in the organising of the temple business. He looks very excited to hear that a Norwegian shows interest in their traditions and invites me to come back at 18.00 to show me some of the preparations for the Kavady.

Back at the temple, 18.00 sharp, I find Bala among all the workers. First thing he takes me around to introduce me to the other members of the Kavady committee… the important guys. Before I know it I’m introduced as a Canadian… and I’m writing…: “this thing” about Kavady and Hinduism… Apparently I’m fasting as well…??? Where the hell did that come from? That is SO not true, but do I look starved (That is normally not the case)? I’m unshaved for a few days – that must be it! In addition to fasting and abstaining from sex and alcohol for the last 10 days, the devotees don’t shave either. Anyway, I don’t have the heart to correct all the mess… so we just carry on. One of the big guys even recognizes me… “oh yes, I saw you at lunch today…”. I did feel slightly out of place eating briyani among all the hard working people… Some of them peeling potatoes and vegetables… carrying firewood, pots or making garlands… then a big fat Norwegian, the only whitie in miles distance, sitting on his ass eating! No wonder he picked me out from the crowd.

I meet the temple priest, their main guy… and I wonder… how the hell do you greet a Hindu priest now? I struggle so much every time I meet family and friends down here… kissing and hugging… never kissed so much ever… then he reaches out his hand to greet… I take his hand and feel very relieved to do a familiar Norwegian handshake. He seems like a normal guy despite his painting and clothes… From what I’ve read he is supposed to be the Idumban - the main guy during the procession. This is not the case though. They have an old guy to do the honour (83 years old). I would definitely not be in that guy’s shoes. Bala shows me a pair of wooden shoes… full of 3-4cm long nails… long sharp and rusty. They look old and probably from the beginning of the temple’s history. It’s funny how the equipment side of sports like soccer have evolved so much - but not the Kavady! Nike, Adidas and Reebok definitely have a market here. Maybe they can even pick up an idea or two also? The shoes can hardly be smelly with all the ventilation between the nails.

Brake Village Temple was built in 1909 and they had their first Kavady the same year. It’s a small temple but it’s a parish to a big Indian community in Tongaat and around. This year about 850 devotees will carry their Kavady’s, and about 25-30.000 people will come to watch the Kavady… or at least drop by for some free food. 1,1 ton of rice will be made for the biryani and 30 tons of firewood will be used to fire up all the big pots for the cooking.

Apparently not all temples do all the Kavadies… I derived that since Brake Village is not doing the Thai Pusam Kavady. Maybe they’ve got some kind of collaboration with the neighbouring temples, like… you take Thai Pusam, and then we take Panguni Uttiram… and so on.

Amongst the crowd I see there are lots of teenage kids. It’s a flirting ground for the youngsters like in any other culture. It’s just the setup – outside the temple? It reminds me so much of the yearly autumn Tivoli that comes to my home town in Norway. Never mind the rides – we went there to go rounds upon rounds and look at the girls. The boar cars are there too! You can hear the boom boxes from afar, but amazingly enough they are polite enough to “put the music slow” to not interfere with the chanting and the hymns. Some guys are coming out from the temple area now with big carton boxes and starts handing out small plastic bags to everybody. It’s sweet rice and ?????, and then some jellebe – pretty much the equivalent of our popcorn and candy floss in Norway I’m sure. As I am observing the whole thing I actually witness 2 families meeting for the first time through their flirting hopeful ones. Very cute!

The chanting and hymns dies away, the sweet rice and jellebe is consumed and the crowd starts to subside and disappear. One of the committee members are speaking on the loudspeaker and announces the tamil newyear on april 22nd, and thanks all the volunteers (my mother in law), the sponsors and blab la bla… First then I notice the boards with “light from ….” and such. It’s a big PR jippo the whole thing. I doubt you’ll ever find commercials in a Norwegian church. But it’s cool – Hinduism must be a pretty liberal and laid back religion, at least in business terms. If I should ever choose any religion, Hinduism is certainly climbing on my ranking now.

Before I leave, Bala invites me back around midnight. All the Kavadies must be blessed, and instead of doing one and one at the time as they arrive, they do one ceremony where they bless them all at the same time at midnight. I tell him: “yes sure” – fully aware that we are having a braai (barbeque) at home and I’m just aching to have a beer. I cannot come back and smell of alcohol now, that’s after all an important thing to abstain from during the fasting. Especially since he has announced to everybody that I’m fasting – there is no return tonight for me. I wonder whether my expression looks convincing as I say “yes sure”! He must know though. Maybe I’ve picked up the communication style by now… politely saying yes whilst I actually mean no? Maybe you do pick up these things unconsciously over time… I don’t know. I leave Bala to assume whatever he wants. I don’t have a bad conscience about it even – surely I’m turning into a South African Indian!

Kavady Day!
I go back to the temple at 8 o’clock. I’m wearing my Balle Balle t-shirt that Julian and Anne sent, sort of to blend into the Indian Hindu crowds. From what I’ve read the male devotees will wear mainly white (colour of purity) clothing and the women yellow (colour of sakti). My t-shirt is a perfect off-white colour - I’ll be like a chameleon I’m sure of it! I showered and brushed my teeth and my tongue extensively this morning to take away any alcohol smell from the few beers I had last night. After fasting for 40 days and abstaining from sex and alcohol for the last 10 days I’m sure the Hindu senses are sharp like a cheetah’s. I won’t risk anything when I meet Bala today.

When I arrive, the temple area is a bit empty and the chariot is gone. They are already on their way towards the ground – and with them they are all pulling the main chariot that was painstakingly decorated the day before. I catch up pretty fast as I don’t have the same burdens to pull. The ground is actually a cricket field, and this is where they will all prepare themselves. Right in the middle of the field I notice a square enclosure. It’s not the green (That’s golf of course), but it’s hard to know what to call it since both the goals and the midfield is at the same place in this confusing game. I decide for myself that this must be the place where all the juicy stuff will happen - all the chanting and going into trance and stuff! My expectations are building up now.

Normally, or according to the theory I’ve read, the Kavady procession starts from a river in the neighbourhood and ends at the temple. There is no big river here. There is a little stream just outside the field though. It is currently flooding the road there, which it usually runs under, so that must be it!

Slowly the field fills up with people – and kavadies. The kavady is not just a stick like I believed it to be. It’s got a big bow on top that they use to cover completely with marigold garlands in smashing orangey yellow colour. Some devotees have also attached pictures of family members (Dead ones I think) and Hindu deities like Shiva and Ganesha. The kavadies are making a huge circle around the whole field now, and the devotee crews are making the last preparations – puffing turmeric on the garlands, fastening the peacock feathers and pouring milk into the small attached brass pots.

Each devotee seems to have their own group of supporters and chanters. It seems like a prestigious thing to do the Kavady. Some of the devotees are prancing around with a cocky attitude – obviously they love being in the centre of everybody’s attention. And the crew members… they seem to be very proud of their devotee also. It’s like a competition going on between the teams scattered around the field. There are small crews and bigger and more extensive ones. Obviously the devotees that are only going to carry the kavady thing only have their near family and friends around. The heavy weight dudes though, the ones that will pull their own chariots, have a much bigger team. People are drawn to them like big heroes. They have their own little band playing the drums and cymbals and singing (shouting), and they are uniformed in the same t-shirts. It’s all very impressive and organised. They are there to get the devotees excited and into trance. Indren tells me that the devotees some times smokes weed during these preparations. That seems to me like a very sensible shortcut if you’re a bit nervous about the needles and all. Funny they don’t have to abstain from weed though? It’s like the Arabians, at least the Saudis. They ban alcohol, but smoke their hookah pipes and chew the kat like crazy. I guess it’s nice to have some of these loopholes to not make it unbearable. Who says religion can’t be fun too?!

The field is pretty full of people now, and the chanting has started. The heavy weight devotees get pierced with all the needles with flowers, limes, coconuts, brass pots and shells and whatnot – and then the big hooks to pull the chariots. The chanting is intense now of course, trying to help their guy to focus on something else but the pain. My god they’re doing a good job. The bands are screaming of full lungs and chanting energetically. Any heavy metal head banger dude would struggle to keep up with this energy level. The blood veins are bulging from their throats and the eyes are threatening to pup out. The rhythms are very catchy. I find myself tapping the beat with my fingers, and almost forget about the main guy and the piercings – halfway into trance myself I’m sure.

So the warming up is over and the devotees are running around with their crews on a tail. It’s apparently time to hook up and hit the road… At least so they announce on the speakers. The Indumban in front, the main guy, is a 83 year old guy. Not the priest as I thought it would be. He is not wearing the nail shoes either? Maybe they gave him some leeway since he is so old… it’s not like it’s gonna be a breakneck speed anyway with him in front. Lord Murugan is not a cruel and sadistic guy after all it seems, although being a war god, I’ll give him that.

The devotees are obediently forming a neat queue now towards the exit of the stadium. I guess Murugan has his way of curbing and keeping control after all, coz it’s very impressive how everything goes from complete chaos to a yellow tidy procession. I’m watching them all leave, before I cut them off and wait for them to pass me on the street. It’s pretty much like the 17th of May in Norway, except that here they have the marigold garland decorated kavadies instead of the Norwegian flag. There are lots of people along the streets waiting for the procession to pass. All of them Indians - every now and then some curious black people though. I noticed some black kids at the stadium, probably from a nearby squatter camp. They obviously knew what a show and a feast this is. At the stadium they could pretty much drink as much milk as they could handle… and at the temple… there will be food waiting for them. As the only whitie in sight, I feel a bit out of place. I wonder why no more people come to watch this though.

Slowly the procession approaches the temple ground. Everything is chaos, people everywhere, and the most exhibitionistic devotees do their final dance to upbeat rhythms. In the crowds around the temple I see the devotees getting de-kavadised and de-pierced… and coming back to a normal state. I’m mingling and taking a last few shots, when one of the devotees comes up to me. “Howzit”, he says. “How did you like the Kavady”? I recognize him from the ground and the streets. He’s not one of the chariot guys or really heavily pierced guys… but still one of the most colourful and noticeable guys from the parade still. He was running around and dancing the whole time – really enjoying the attention. “I saw you at the parade”, he says. I did notice some stares from the crowds despite my attempts to dress and blend in… just forgot the shoepolish! I talk to the guy… tells me about his devotion for Shiva… his woman that had to take 9 different shapes to get Shiva… and all her 1300 something sexual positions…. What? 1300??!! You tell me this is all about devotion to Murugan or Shiva or whoever… when the first thing this guy is telling me about is how much fun Shiva had with his chameleon like and horny woman. I can see his motivation though, crystal clear! It must be so much more fun than being a Christian. I tell him I’m contemplating carrying Kavady next year… or for the 100 years anniversary in 2009, as a joke of course. He immediately offers me his Kavady. Apparently he is moving up one division, and needs a bigger and better Kavady… maybe a chariot is the next thing for him? It’s like a Kavady cast system, from the lightest chicken kavadies and up to the heavily pierced chariot-pulling guys. Politely I decline his offer though… I’d rather watch next year as well!

I’m moving towards the food tent now, hungry after several hours of sucking in impressions. The queue for the food is long. I see them dish up on the paper plates. When it’s my turn the guy raises his eyebrows and gets a humoristic expression on his face – then hi dishes up an extra big portion. I find an open spot on the lawn and sit down to eat. No cutlery of course, so the fingers are the only means. People stare, and one woman have to turn around and complement me on my finger-eating technique. It must be very amusing for them to see a whitie here… and trying to eat like an Indian. As I finish my food, I take one last walk around the temple (I must have done at least my three rounds by now), then I meet Bala. Bala offers me more food to take home. He is organising the food stalls. I’m sure they made food for a few extra thousand people in good Indian style. I am way past full, so I decline and decide to go home. The only sorry thing is that I totally forgot to look for that flag… and the lowering of the flag marking the end of the festival… Next time!

Note: Kavadinfo likes to thank Johnny for sharing his experience and fotos.
Johns blog you can find here.


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Ego Kornus said...

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