Lord Skanda-Murugan

Tamil Language and Murukan Worship in South Africa


by Prof. S. Subramaniyan

The life and breath of every individual are his mother language. This may be identified with signs or words which help to communicate. Language attains its real strength, power and divinity by its relationship with the Supreme One through prayer and the philosophy of worldly life. This relationship between the individual and God guides one to attain power and strength for material and spiritual purposes, for which language helps. It also becomes an effective tool to all people in their various walks of life.

The Tamil proverbs Ennum eluttum kannenat takum ('The numbers and letters of a language are to be considered as the eyes of people') and Elutte iraivanakum ('The letter itself is God which has sound, meaning and intonation') are noteworthy. In Sanskrit it is said akśaram Brahma (The sound of letters is imperishable Brahman).

Mastery of one's mother-tongue (by realising the formation of sounds), especially for Indian people in foreign countries, is very helpful to understand and realise God. This leads people to a faith that language is God and God is language'. It is language that coordinates thoughts easily to bring out the material and spiritual culture.

Among Indians it is generally understood that culture means spiritual culture, which leads one to have noble qualities, having love as the base while the word 'culture' refers to the expression of pleasures in western oriented styles. The Joint Secretary of the Hindu Maha Sabha of South Africa, Mr.R.Kallideen informs, that "it is our belief that the only vehicle of culture is its language. Any deprivation of one's language means the erosion of one's culture and identity." (The Leader 30 October 1998).

History of the arrival of Tamils in South Africa

South Indian labourers were brought to Natal as indentured labourers between 1860 and 1911 to work in the sugar cane plantations for the progress and welfare of the white colonial masters of Natal. There were three groups of South Indians who arrived at Natal. The first group was the labourers who came from the bottom level of the society and who knew Tamil language at oral level only. The second group consisted of those who were ready to work in hotels, motels, offices, white masters houses and horse-stables as servers, servants and care-takers who knew pidgin English, with a little knowledge of Tamil in reading, writing and in speech. The third group consisted of the free passengers who came to do business and who knew basic English and good Tamil with three R's. They came to do business to cater for the needs and necessities of Indians in religion, language and culture.

Having been deprived of education of their mother tongue, these first two groups planned to educate their children using the learned persons among them and honoured them as vattiyars. These vattiyars (gurus) commanded high respect and had status over others. These were the noble souls who sowed the seeds for the second and third generation in Tamil language, religion and culture.

The easy approach to all of them was Lord Murukan since they needed a Vēl only to worship Him in that symbolic form and no elaborate arrangements were needed. So in the early period, symbolic worship of Vēl was considered very important and the vattiyars' words were the scriptural commands. This was first started in Clare Estate in the Port Durban area around 1868. They had to undergo a lot of sufferings and that too, in a foreign land they had to approach God in some form by building small thatched shed temples.

Religio-cultural tradition

The Tamils followed their traditional worship of personal god, family god, community god (village god), and higher level of gods. The worship of Lord Śiva and Śakti, Lord Narayana or Perumal and Lord Murukan falls under the fourth category. Although they followed their own methods in the first three categories, the fourth one raised them to a higher status in the eyes of other Indians, increasing their honour and prestige in the newly formed Indian groups in Natal. So the South Indians, especially free passengers preferred to worship Lord Śiva or Lord Vişņu or Lord Murukan.

Among all the poor indentured labourers, however, Muruka worship was fondly welcomed by all as they saw and experienced the power of trance and easily understood them. Moreover they had a deep oral tradition of rhythmic folk music, which also helped them to enact dramas at night in open air theatres during temple functions and festivals, from 9 P.M. to 5 A.M.

Among the open air theatre dramas were Valli Tirumanam, Sura Samhāram. Many Tamils believed that seeing such dramas by keeping themselves awake all through the night was also an act of penance for which the Divine would bestow His grace on them. The early Tamils maintained such oral cultural traditions because of their faith in God and strong memory power through which they transmitted their traditions and customs from one generation to the other.

In the early period they installed the Vēl as a symbol of Lord Murukan and worshipped Him with deep love and affection, singing devotional songs which they had learnt before. The temples were started with thatched roof and iron rods. They were maintained by the knowledgeable vattiyars as pucaris between 1865 and 1949. The symbolic expression of Lord Murukan in the form of Vēl was accepted by all.

This symbol Vēl is a symbol of the presence of Lord Murukan. The ancient Tamils worshipped Vēl as the One that brought success to those who prayed to Him. So before they went for war, they worshipped Lord Murukan in the form of Vēl (Nattrinai 244, Kuruntokai 263). So worship of Lord Murukan is very ancient from early Cankam period.

Until the arrival of free passengers, the worship of Murukan in the form of Vēl by singing Tamil folk songs was followed sincerely. After the arrival of free passengers from 1875, many Tamil holy books, music books and works of Tamil literature were brought which added strength to Muruka worship. After 1868 pictures of Muruka and especially icons were brought to Natal later with the help of free passengers and freed indentured labourers.


Trance is a part of worship of Lord Murukan. Trance is an important factor which reinforced fear of doing wrong and inspired bhakti among devotees. Trance enabled Tamils to escape from their miseries, sufferings and difficulties under the hands of their own Indian supervisors (called sirdars) and white masters in their daily toil.

This is a part of Muruka worship where the devotee enters into another level of consciousness, losing his body-consciousness. During kāvaṭi festival when he carries the kāvaṭi singing Tamil songs, the devotee goes into trance. The abnormal behaviour of the devotee in terms of power, strength and knowledge conveyed in Tamil, developed fear on one side and faith on the other to many devotees of Lord Murukan. This is a direct experience between the trance person and the devotee, based on the questions and the answers exchanged.

Trance of this sort served like a ship carrying the devotees freely from their sufferings to a safe place. The trance person used to answer many of the questions raised in Tamil language by pointing out their mistakes boldly and even guided them, showing the ways of atonement with remedial measures. Sometimes the trance person called vēlan explained the reasons for their sufferings in detail to their satisfaction, bringing out their secrets which made them feel surprised, as nobody knew them.

The remedial measures varied from personal discipline to offerings to the temple. Some devotees were reminded of their forgotten vows. All these experiences increased faith and commitment to Lord Murukan. In addition to that, the trance person used to proclaim openly some of the secret information of the supervisors and masters who terrified them. The masters were afraid to punish those devotees and the trance persons as they feared retribution.

Sometimes the trance-person used to guide some of the masters when they had difficulties. So trance helped the devotees of Murukan as a protection and prepared them for their future through faith and devotion to Lord Murukan. In all these communications it was the Tamil language which was used and not English.

A French film maker Jean Rough did a study among a tribal community called Haouka (Songhay) and their cult in Ghana and documented how migrant workers resolved their adaptation to a colonial urban environment through trance. In the same way the Tamil migrants also used this trance in making adjustments to their lives suitable to their environments.

Many of the devotees of Lord Murukan in the present fifth generation know kāvaṭi music and understand the rhythm. The influence of the dominant Western culture causes the present fifth generation to give little respect to their elders and to society. This indirectly encouraged youths to keep away from their mother-tongue Tamil while they also had little opportunity to learn the heritage and power of their mother tongue. But they tried to maintain their devotion to Lord Murukan by participating in cultural activities. In the present day, the information in trance continues to be conveyed in Tamil language. English translation is also needed for some of the Tamil youth as many find it difficult to understand the meanings of those Tamil words.

During the first (1860-1899) and second periods (1900-1949), many temples were built using the names of the Lord as Śiva temple, Śiva Subrahmaņya temple, Subrahmaņya temple etc. as the South Indian community became self-sufficient. In such temples, one can see icons of Lord Śiva, Goddess Śakti, Lord Vinayaka, Lord Murukan, Lord Narayana, etc., allowing all devotees to worship any god as they liked.

Kāvaṭi festival and bhakti

The frequent journeys by ship between Natal and South India (1900-1949) by Tamils helped to reestablish traditional ways of worshipping gods and goddesses. For the worship of Lord Murukan, carrying kāvaṭi was considered very important. The devotees undertook vows, penance and severe austerities during Murukan festivals, as in Tamil Nadu. They used to come to the temple and sing Tamil songs on Lord Murukan as a family.

This trend has been changing slowly as more importance is given to some kinds of rituals, as many prefer to become pūcaris without any proper training. Some of these vattiyars and pūcaris guide people with their limited expertise. They were also highly respected by people. In the present day if thes pūcaris insist on certain short rhythmic-beat-kāvaṭi songs, people will follow them sincerely.

In order to retain the language, these pūcaris who play an important part, should be given sufficient scriptural-knowledge, proper training in Tamil music in kāvaṭi, sindu, kilikkanni styles of music as they lack them. Their words and instructions carry tremendous weight and can exert a great deep impact among the devotees.

Nowadays (since 1993) how do we perform kāvaṭi festival?

Nowadays, the temple priest tunes the tape recorder, containing songs on Murukan and the whole crowd goes round the temple carrying the kāvaṭi on their shoulders. Nobody repeats or sings those songs when they circambulate the temples three times. The priest does not even advise them to repeat those songs and this activity has become a meaningless ritual. Many do not know or understand the meaning of kāvaṭi. People have bhakti in their heart but they are not properly guided in the temples. The knowledge of Tamil language and the religio-cultural importance of prayers given in scriptures and in songs are not explained. The priests who help temples to collect much money during festivals is highly respected by the temple authorities.

This has caused many priests to devise easy methods to earn money which slowly erodes the divinity and the Tamil language in the temples. The word pūcari in the present day refers to the un-qualified one who takes the temple work tentatively according to seasons or festivals and the 'priest' refers to the qualified one. The temple committee members who have very little knowledge of language and religion also hesitate to employ Tamil scholars, specialised in religio-cultural practices out of fear for their status and positions.

Kāvaṭi practice in South Africa today

Like in Tamil Nadu, many strong and faithful devotees hook their whole body with hanging lemons, small pots of milk or water, pierce their tongues and cheeks in all possible ways, without shedding a single drop of blood. These activities surprised many white-foreigners, local Africans and many rationalists. Bhakti in the hearts of devotees is expressed through not caring for the bodily pain and tortures. Their only wish is that they should do their obligatory duty to Murukan without any personal motive, except of getting His grace.

There are three kinds of participants. Some carry kāvaṭi to keep their vows. Others carry it to get a cure for their physical and mental disease. Others do it as their family duty. The third category of people is considered as the holy sattvic devotees according to Bhagadvad Gīta.

Muruka festivals are celebrated in Natal during Cittira Pournami, Taippūcam, Pankuni Uttiram, Vaikaci Vicākam, Kanta Caśṭi and Karttikai Tīpam. Some of them who could not carry their kāvaṭi perform worship on Sundays only. Most of these people do not understand the importance of the festival and the needs and necessities of auspiciousness and disciplined austerities of the relevant days. But they wish to do their duty to God as they could not do it on the auspicious days due to many other difficulties; a few suiting to their conveniences.

The noble philanthropist V.M. Reddy of Durban, who always thought of the welfare of the Indian community in South Africa, brought Śrī Lankan qualified-priests to provide a proper regularised form of worship in some of the temples, which helped to stabilise the temple-culture in a proper form.

Temple organisers who have very little knowledge of Tamil or Sanskrit, their histories, or ritual cultures often give more importance to priestly styled rituals in the temples than to singing kāvaṭi songs or providing explanations and lectures in Tamil language. They could not provide for the progress of Tamil language especially in satisfying their doubts regarding their religious customs and beliefs.

Devotees should be given opportunities to do their part in Tamil language. The priests should study or guide people more in Tamil songs of Arunagirinathar, Arunachala Kavirayar's kāvaṭi cintu, Kanta Caśṭi Kavacam, Pamban Swamigal's Saravaņa Kavacam, etc. But these are all new to some of those Sri Lankan priests.

It is essential that the priests in South Africa must have the full knowledge of Tamil language and religious literature and the saints who wrote them. Priests give little emphasis to Arunagirināthar, Kumāra Gurupara Swamigal or Pamban Swamigal either through lectures or Tamil prayers. Devotees are ready to follow what the temple authorities request them to do. But the temple authorities with little knowledge of Tamil language have to depend on Sri Lankan priests who work as priest and purohits.

Recently temple organisers having very little knowledge in Tamil have been recruiting priests from Tamil Nadu at a very low salary (less than 700 rand, which is half of the salary of the lowest cadre in the government) without any written contract. This pitiable condition should be rectified by the noble Saiva mutts of Tamil Nadu in co-operation with the temple authorities of Natal. The communication gap between these authorities should be narrowed so that proper guidance by the learned authorities of the mutts will provide Natal a healthy boost in terms of Tamil language, religion and culture.

One year before the beginning of the third period (1950-1993) the South African Indian community was devastaed by 1949 riots and scattered to distant areas by the government implementing the Group Areas Act. The white ruling apartheid government wished to de-stabilise the Indians. The magazine 'Indigo' explains as follows:

"However the Indi-African riots of 1949, largely inspired by whites who wanted to break the unity between Indians and Blacks had a long-lasting psychological effect on the Indian community. It virtually isolated Indians from the politics of the country (except for a handful of Indian stalwarts who fervently committed themselves to the anti-apartheid struggle)." (1998 October Indigo).

In addition the ruling white power created fear to expatriate all the Indians of the fourth generation to India which made them to depend on English only and nothing but English for survival. So each and every South Indian whether male or female had to depend on English and Western culture, for survival. So the Eurocentric educational culture has been injected continuously up to this day in their veins. India got isolated from South Africa due to apartheid rule between 1950 and 1992 and the poor Tamils had to re-build their families, education and progress, from the beginning by building temples again. So they struggled and came out successful by 1980-quite a short time.


In the present day, devotees feel that bhakti means bringing fruits, coconut, milk, betel leaves and nuts, honey, curd etc. and the priest should offer them to God. The real meaning of bhakti is not well-understood by devotees and so there are controversial statements given by different priests of different temples. The real definition of culture is not at all understood even by the enlightened ones. Marlan Padayachee, a South African Indian, writes as follows:

"What they knew of their cultural heritage consisted of crude religious observances (without understanding the richer essence of Indian philosophical teachings), weddings in the Indian fashion, culinary habits, Indian music and their special languages. This bare structure of Indian culture gave Indians an identity while all round they were subjected to and dominated by a colonising Eurocentric culture." (Marlon Padayachee. Indigo p.45).

No priest or devotee preaches that bhakti should come with full love and devotion from the hearts of the devotees, evoking the examples from Tamil literatures. Many do not make efforts to evaluate the greatness and devotion from the lives of saints who developed bhakti and proper culture. Very few knew about Kirupānanda Variyar and his works. Some of the present generation devotees wish to perform kāvaṭi in the western style, according to their tastes. Temple authorities who are keen to generate income using these kāvaṭi festivals take very little care to advise them and emphasize the importance of kāvaṭi festivals.

"Although several priests and temple leaders claim the interests of the devotees are of paramount importance, some religious organisations and devotees say leaders can be content to milk devotees for cash and other contributions while allowing them to continue in blissful ignorance about their religion." (Durban Tribune Herald, 25 October 1998)

Tamil folk music has been virtually forgotten. Now the ball is in the hands of the temple organisers. The noble child saint Sambandhar and other Nayanmars and Alwars have showed the method of Pāṭal Nēri, based on bhakti and this should be followed by all devotees sincerely, by understanding the meaning and developing devotion in their hearts. Every ritual activity in the worship of Lord Murukan should be accompanied by some Murukan songs in Tamil, suitable to that ritual and conveying philosophy. This can create a powerful impact physiologically and psychologically upon the devotees.

The gender dividing line

Women who sought jobs in order to maintain their families have risen in power and social status in South Africa in the third period (1950-1993). Although they had a deep knowledge of English and Western culture, these faithful women did not abandon Tamil culture like their menfolk.

Well-qualified South Indian women, understanding the negative influences of western culture, have taken bold steps to retain bhakti and culture, especially in the devotional tradition, in the fourth period (1993-1998). One sees more women at temple functions, festivals, and in weekly prayer groups than men. In his experiences in Natal, the author finds women than men are more interested to learn and put into practice many Tamil traditions and our mother tongue. Indeed, women are the real leaders in the family and community in all functions.


Temple priests who have to be in the temple as full time community workers become purohits to supplement their income as they are paid a very poor salary. The priests who have been brought from foreign countries to serve in the temples are forced to chalk out plans to earn money. Many dishonest approaches are practised such that the public who are very sincere and pious find it difficult to understand the temple priests, authorities and their works. In the daily newspapers one can find many letters to the editors on this subject.

"Temples do not offer discourses on the various aspects of our beautiful and multifacted religion which should be explained and shared by the community. Some temple heads, content to conduct sacred rituals among a set clique, are not prepared to tell people what is going on during a prayer....That is why we are losing our values and people at such a rate. We need to make a concerted effort to revive our broad-based religion." (Durban Tribune Herald, 25 October 1998)

Temples must use the tape recorders regularly to publicise the Tamil songs so that pious people who come to temples will have the opportunities to hear Tamil language which will develop interest. The temple organisers should get Tamil scholars to explain the value and importance of those songs and prayers, taking from the lives of saints and their instructions.

Our duty

According to the census report 1996 of South Africa, the population of South Africa is 40.58 million and the Kwa-Zulu Natal has 8.4 million which is 21% of the total. Out of one million Indians in South Africa, Kwa-Zulu Natal has 76% (791,000). Ninety-seven percent (97%) of Indian community live in urban areas and 94% of them are English speaking. (1998: October The Leader).


Africans Indians Whites coloureds
82% 9% 8% 1%

Age distribution (30 years and below)
Indians Black Africans Coloureds Whites
57% 65% 61% 45%

Educational level among Indians
no schooling primary school secondary school 10th grade complete post-school
7% 13% 4% 30% 10%

The above information makes us understand the dire need of usage of mother tongue, and the duty of the temple authorities and the Tamil organisations in imparting language and culture to the Indian community. Tamils, who constitute approximately 60% of Natal Indians, need to make serious efforts in developing contact with Tamil Nadu mutts, language and cultural organizations that have understood the needs of Tamils in South Africa 's multi-lingual and multi-cultural situation. The Tamil Nadu Government should show its support to the Tamils in South Africa who are very pious and sincere in maintaining their language and culture.

Tamil folk songs, especially Lord Murukan songs, should be distributed among South African Tamils as a service to the Tamil language by philanthropists. People can do prayers in Tamil language with devotion and love while the priests of the temple can do arcana for devotees. As the present generation is weak in its mother tongue Tamil, simple explanations of those music styled songs such as kanni, cintu, kilikkanni, kāvaṭi and other folk songs will help them to sing and practise regularly. Lord Murukan songs in bhajans and important samskaras should be promoted by saintly people. Cultural activities like kummi, kolattam, dance performances, dramas, and other Tamil songs related to Murukan should be encouraged. Arunachala Reddiar's kāvati cintu, Sulamangalam sisters' songs, Kanta Caśṭi Kavacam, Saravaņa Kavacam, Bangalore Ramani's songs, Tirumati K.B. Sundarambal's songs will activate their interest in the Tamil language and devotion to Lord Murukan.

The temple authorities and the priests must be Tamil lovers and true devotees and must be knowledgeable people in the mother tongue and religious cultural activities. Many true and devoted Tamil scholars who can visit Natal should explain the significance of our cultural traditions, supported by the great saints and jñānis through powerful Tamil songs. In these respects Saiva mutts must take the responsibility. On all Murukan festival days Tamil dramas should be encouraged by the temple authorities which will attract many people like in the early period. Every family must be taken as a unit and should be taught Tamil language, religion and culture under the temple organizations.

Awareness about the value of mother-tongue, religion and culture should be cultivated among all Indians through campaigns and rallies, encouraged by the news media in the present democratic setup. We need a separate news coverage for our development in making others to understand the deep religious and cultural heritage which will benefit all mankind. Political support is also very important as the democratic set up is based on vote collecting system and this can be done by making the black African leaders aware of our rich languages and cultural heritages. The organisations must make finances available to talented Indians who wish to pursue languages and culture studies.

In the process of modernization, many are losing their heritage as they have no proper leaders or guides. Television and films are controlled by the Western-oriented white or black organisers and so Tamils have very few opportunities to see Tamil films or Tamil dramas. The trance devotees should express the importance of Tamil language to the devotees through Muruka songs.

If devotional Tamil culture has to survive, it lies in the hands of temple organisers, devotees and priests. Films, dramas, projects, puranic episodes, Muruka festivals in other countries should be shown through private television and radios. Bhakti on Muruka will unite all devotees of the world under Tamil language as Tamil tradition has its root on Lord Murukan worship. Tamil Nadu government should help the Tamils of South Africa providing necessary informations through audio-video cassettes in Tamil language and these have to be shown in the temple festivals and functions, freely to all people, to unite all in the rainbow nation of South Africa.

The worship of Lord Murukan, if guided properly, will unite people of South Africa in understanding the commanalities between South African culture and Dravidian culture. This will also guide all to get united and strive for higher aims through language and culture and their philosophies. This divine culture will provide chances to retain and to revitalise the Tamil language among Tamils.

This paper was presented at the First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan, December 1998


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  1. Sentamil Selvan 1938, 1956
  2. The Leader 1998 October
  3. Indigo 1998 November

Dr. S. Subramaniyan teaches in the Department of Indian Languages at the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa.

This paper was presented at the First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan, December 1998

Dr. S. Subramaniyan
Department of Indian language
University of Durban-
Durban 4000 South Africa