When the Indian population settled in Durban more than a hundred years ago, they not only adapted but brought with them their own traditional and cultural practices which are still largely practiced today. The annual Mariamman Festival is one such example. To appreciate cultural diversity in Durban is to understand it, and in Durban we are fortunate enough to learn about each other’s culture as we observe and partake in these traditions. In every culture there is a reference of gratitude to a higher power that governs and controls the earth, we all have our own unique ways of being thankful in the form of prayers and worship. In Durban the Tamil community does an annual porridge prayer to thank Mother Nature for her provisions.
The mythology of the festival
The annual Mariamman Festival or prayer is held annualy from July to August, the month of Aadi in Tamil terms. In Tamil a month starts from the 15th day of the month. The Mariamman festival is held at local temples and households and is referred to as the porridge jol in local Durban slang by the Tamil community. Mariamman is a Hindu goddess, who is depicted as Mother Nature. The word Marie means rain and Amman means mother in Tamil language. Mariamman hence means rain mother. She is also known as Mother Shakti which means power.
The history and mythology date back to ancient history in South India. There was a time of drought and an outbreak of measles, and mother came in the form of a woman dressed in yellow. She fed and nursed the people with porridge, and a mixture of turmeric and Syringa leaves. When she returned to the forest when her work was done, the people in the village went looking for her and found her under a Syringa tree. When they enquired about her identity, she revealed herself as the mother of nature and asked of them that, every year at the time she appeared, people should gather to worship her and distribute porridge. Then she left, leaving rains to bathe the earth and help the growth of harvest. Syringa trees are native to India but can also be found in Durban and is popular because of its healing and antiseptic properties. Interestingly, today when an individual in the Hindu culture has an onset of measles or mumps, it is regarded as a visitation from the Mother and treated as holy. The patient is treated with turmeric powder and isolated for a week, thereafter a prayer for the Mother is done.
The prayer is usually held on a Sunday for convenience and allows time for the family to gather so everybody partakes in the prayer. The devotees wake up at 4 am to prepare the porridge which was mealie meal soaked 5 days prior prayer, allowing fermentation. The porridge is prepared by allowing the mealie meal to boil and once cooked and cooled, sour milk, shallot, and salt is added. The porridge can be made by anybody. Thereafter 3 separate vegetable curries are prepared, mainly cabbbage, pumpkin and mixed vegetables as to appease the Goddess.
The prayer starts at 11:30 as it is a holy time just before 12 as 12 is rendered an inauspicious number. The curries, seven kinds of seeds and porridge are then offered to the Mother. The seeds are then thrown for the birds to eat. The seeds are a token of appreciation for the harvest of crops and for providing us with food. In some cases, there is a sacrifice of animals, specifically hens, as there was an old belief that these acts appease the angry Goddess for our sins. The curries and the porridge are then fed to the people, it is believed that when a sick person drinks the porridge, they are healed of any ailment. The household members then make up food parcels to distribute to their surrounding neighbours. Families come together and socialise during this time and some conduct an evening prayer that offers the goddess the meat that was sacrificed during the morning prayer.
The festival lasts a month and it always falls in the month of harvest. It is a way of thanking Mother Nature for what she has given, even in times when there is drought, a prayer for Mother Nature brings rain.
Written by Yoveshine Pillay