Started by immigrants, temple became cultural hub

2008-10-08 00:00

A city’s history is made up of myriad threads of people, places and events layered together over time. One of those threads is the story of the Shri Vishnu Temple at the lower end of Langalibalele (Longmarket) Street that celebrates 100 years of existence this month.

The temple stands across the road from the more ornate and older Siva Soobramoniar and Marriamen temples, based on South Indian places of worship. According to Alleyn Diesel and Patrick Maxwell in their book Hinduism in Natal, it is a typical example of a North Indian temple. The building is painted a stark white with a central plain dome above the shrine room and an arched veranda to enable devotees to walk around it.

Its construction some 47 years after the arrival in South Africa of the first batch of indentured labourers from India is viewed as part of the efforts of these forced migrants to find their space and lay down roots in their new home country. In their compelling work, Inside Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914, authors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed describe the establishment of Hindu practices in Natal. They say Hinduism is not monolithic, but “remains a loosely knit tradition with a variety of beliefs and practices … the indentured and their descendants instituted a range of customs, traditions, beliefs and values in Natal. These were not simply inherited and transplanted from India, but often refashioned in a fluid and complex situation.”

The idea for the Shri Vishnu Temple was first mooted in 1907, shortly after freed labourers began settling in Pietermaritzburg as market gardeners, hawkers and employees of the colonial government. According to the temple records at this time the names of 33 Hindu property owners appeared on the voters list. A meeting was held on Sunday October 13, 1907 and the names of these property owners were presented to elect a committee of 11. Two trustees, now considered to be founding members of the temple, were Ramdew Maharaj and Kanahai Maharaj. Ramdew was employed by the local town board as a streetlamp lighter. Land for the temple was bought from the Natal Land and Colonisation Company Ltd for £170 from funds raised by the local community and wealthy benefactors — Majles Singh of Richmond, Hardaw Singh of Edendale and Sookun of Lidgetton.

In 1921 tenders were called for the construction of the temple. There were two responses, Kamtha for £140 and Lutchman Singh at £153. Singh was given the tender but temple records reflect that the construction of the dome was done by a person named Mistree. A passage from the records written in 1982 reads: “Today, the services of a structural engineer would be required to plan and supervise such an operation. However, the dome was planned and executed by one named Mistree. The cast of the dome was made with mealie stalks and bamboo and the final product reflects the dexterity and craftsmanship of a master builder.”

According to Diesel and Maxwell, a key feature of the temple is the marble images in the shrine room of the main deities worshipped in the North Indian tradition. These are of the god Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, also known as the goddess of good fortune, as well as representations of Vishnu’s two most important incarnations in human form — Rama and Krishna.

The temple became an extension of community life and to improve children’s education a school comprising five classrooms was built adjoining the temple. An interesting aspect of the history of this complex revolves around the buying of a playing field for children of the school. One of the adjoining properties was owned by a Muslim family. Negotiations followed involving the Hindu community, the local Muslim community and the Anglican priest from nearby St Paul’s Church, Reverend Poodhun. The land was eventually sold to the Shri Vishnu Committee and the temple records its gratitude to the Moosa brothers, Reverend Poodhun and other community members involved in the negotiations.

Diesel and Maxwell say that over the years the Shri Vishnu Temple has contributed much to the Pietermaritzburg community by arranging lectures on various religious topics and allowing the premises to be used for ceremonies, weddings, bazaars and other cultural and social gatherings. “On Good Friday, when the firewalking takes place across the road at the Marriamen temple, a lively bazaar is held in the school grounds adjoining the Vishnu Temple.”

• The 100th anniversary celebration of the Shri Vishnu Temple takes place this weekend. On October 11, starting at 8 am, a march led by the South African Police Services (SAPS) military band will start at the temple, go around the city and return. This will be followed by a Vishnu Sahasranaam Hawan (prayer) and the public are invited to participate. The function will conclude with lunch.

On October 12, starting at 10 am, there will be a day of Indian cultural events at the Truro Hall in Northdale. The show will include guest artists performing folk songs and dances. The keynote speaker will be Swami Abhedananda of India. Lunch will be served.

For more information contact Bhairo Maharaj, president of the Shri Vishnu Temple, at 033 387 7076 or 082 562 5767 or programme director Henry Budhram at 082 496 1054.

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