The long struggle for the very first Diwali by Ashwin Desai

Over 80% of the indentured who arrived in Port Natal were Hindus. It is one of the fascinating aspects of history that the first official recognition of Diwali was in 1910, fifty years after the very first landing. 

To the Colonial White population in Natal, Hindu migrants were “heathens” and when you married, under religion, was written this very word. As JD Kelly wrote: ‘The colonial Europeans had little comprehension of, or patience for, the Indian religious tamasas, ritual festivals of indenture days. They saw heathen, ungodly, lewdness, dangerous tumult and disorder, and all the more evidence of the Indians bad character.’

For the authorities, the indentured were beasts of burden, cogs in a labouring machine. Witness the words of the Medical Officer of Stanger Dr HW Jones written in 1900:

Mr. Hulett, you don’t err on the side of mercy in the treatment of coolies. During the summer months you make your Indians toil in the blazing sun from sunrise to sunset, a period of twelve or thirteen hours…It is not an unknown incident for Indians to drop down in the field from sheer exhaustion. You profess a lot of Christianity, the psalm smiling machine is on the jog nearly the whole day-but you don’t practice it.

There were certain sugar barons who demanded that an indentured woman spend her wedding night with him. Overseers who brazenly raped women on the sugar-cane field. Witness the testimony of Sasamah:

‘I am the wife of Chengadoo of Rydal Vale Estate, Duffs Road. I am employed on the estate as field labourer. Three Mondays ago the overseer asked me to lie with him. I refused. He asked me several times after this to lie with him. I declined to do so on all occasions. On Monday week last in the afternoon I was put to work alone apart from other women close to a cane field. I refused to work alone. He said that I must work where he says. I was doing my work. He left me and came back a few minutes after and said that he would have connection with me. With that he carried me into a large cane field. I cried out for help but there were no one working near to hear my cry. He carried me and threw me on my back in the field. He lifted up my cloth and got between my legs. Before committing the act he stuffed cloth in my mouth and had connexion with me. I felt he passed semen into me. Before leaving me he said if I told anyone he would cut my throat.’

Vellach complained to the Deputy Protector that Hulley, her employer, offered to pay her for sex while she was in his bedroom while she was cleaning; ‘He came in, striking his pocket saying he would give me 3 if I would lie with him, as the mistress and her family had gone to town. I refused saying my husband would beat me. He said he would not tell him.’ Hulley’s defence was that he could not have made this proposition because Vellach was ‘unattractive.’ He was found not guilty. Sasamah’s case yielded similar results. The employer’s word was sacrosanct.

In this context of casual everyday brutality, the story of Rama and Sita becomes a potent source of inspiration. The indentured too saw themselves as exiled like Rama: ‘Bereft of goods, a mendicant, as slave, Rama to spend fourteen years in the woods’. In the Ramayana, Sita is portrayed as the faithful wife, Rama as the brave warrior and Ravana as evil. In Sita, the indentured men saw the model of a faithful wife, many of them having left their wives in India, or had partners who were constantly open to abuse, as the case of Sasamah illustrates. In the figure of the evil Ravana, they saw a ‘model of the delusions of powerful evil’, not unlike the overseers, Sirdars and employers they confronted daily. The play had a powerful resonance amongst the indentured population, as it showed that whatever the challenges faced, good would always overcome evil.

At a time when slave-like conditions gave people a feeling of what John Berger called ‘undefeated despair’, how more powerful a narrative to grip the imagination and give people hope than the story of Rama and Sita?

Historical records reveal that despite the warnings and violence meted out by the bosses, in their limited time-off, the indentured used drama and music to keep their spirits going. Take the case of Durga, indentured number 84560, who worked for WB Turner of Howick. Durga told the Indian Protector in 1903 that around 7.00 pm, he and ‘the other Indians were sitting in my house and passing our time by singing songs. My master came to the house and took the drum from me and chopped it to the ground. When it didn’t break he went and brought an axe and chopped it into four pieces’. Turner admitted breaking the drum ‘because they would not stop playing and singing all night’.

But the indentured refused to stop dancing and singing, remembering traditions left behind. One is reminded of Rumi: ‘Don’t worry about saving those songs/And if one of our instruments breaks/It doesn’t matter/We have fallen into place/where everything is music’.

Despite the poverty wages and a system that historian Hugh Tinker described as a new form of slavery, the indentured built numerous temples in those initial years. Employees of the Durban Corporation, who were housed in the Railway and Magazine Barracks in the city centre, built three temples in the 1880s. Of these, the Durban Hindu Temple in Somtseu Road still exists, and continues to host the major celebration of Ram Navami. Babu Talwantsing and Chundoo Sing, both of whom came as indentured workers, founded the Gopallal Hindu Temple in Verulam in 1888. One of the financiers of the Umgeni Road Temple, originally built in 1885 was a woman, Amrotham Pillay, who came as an indentured migrant.

The 95 year old Shri Vishnu temple at the Magazine Bar Racks Somtseu Roa...
The 95 year old Shri Vishnu temple at the Magazine Barracks that was eventually destroyed under the Group Areas Act in 1966.

Temples were a powerful source of comfort for many, as it was here that communal worship was experienced, birth, marriage and death ceremonies observed, and festivals celebrated. These were the very first incubators of community in an environment of incredible hostility.

The only time the indentured could leave the plantation was for three days to celebrate Muharram, what the whites called “coolie Christmas”. Despite being a Muslim celebration, indentured of all religions arrived in the city to celebrate. They took over the city and often fought pitched battles with each other. In 1891, the Superintendent of Police, Richard Alexander, reported: ‘On Sunday morning, during the Divine Service the public were distracted by tom-tomming carried out in the Railway Compound. I went myself to stop it. I found about 1,500 half-drunk coolies…I stopped the tom-tomming, but heard it again before I reached home.’

Muhurrum procession
Muharram procession, early 1900, Durban
Therukoothu Dance performers 1895

In 1908, divine intervention arrived in the struggle for some official recognition of Diwali. Swami Shankeranand arrived on these shores and immediately took up the struggle for Diwali to be officially recognised. Initially, the colonial authorities fobbed him off, mockingly inquiring, ‘how many coolie Christmases do you want to have?’ But he persisted, sending letter after letter. In January 1910, the education department declared Diwali a school holiday. Encouraged by this, in April 1910, Shankeranand organised a massive Ram Navami Festival. Participants met at the Umgeni Road Temple, and after the speeches, a crowd of approximately 4 000, accompanied by chariots, marched through the streets of Durban chanting “Shree Ramchandraji”. When the procession returned to the temple, a feast was laid on and three wrestling bouts between North and South Indians, at which the African Chronicle newspaper reported ‘indentured Indian [South] was the best’. It was an impressive display and the white authorities took note, with the Durban Municipality granting employees a day off to celebrate Diwali.

And so it came to be that in 1910, Diwali took to the streets of Durban.

108 years later, I stand at the Durban Drive-in, watching thousands of people come in search of spirituality and shopping. I want to tell each one about the long and historic struggle to make Diwali a reality, the sacrifices made to build the very first temples and how, even in the depths of despair, they sang and danced to the rhythms of their gods.

I want to tell them that over a decade ago, at the height of apartheid’s power, my father and I drove past this Drive-in. I was seven years old, already a veteran of the Raj and Avalon Cinemas. I saw the silhouettes flickering in the distance. I begged my father to drive in. He stopped on the side of the road and put me on the roof of our borrowed Zodiac. He did not have the heart to tell me we were not allowed to enter this citadel of white privilege. Today, we take the Diwali at the Drive-in for granted, oblivious to previous struggles and turning our back on those still to be fought.

This Diwali, when you burst those fireworks and gorge on one more sweetmeat, spare a thought for those who fought so hard to keep the spirit of Hinduism alive. A Hinduism full of desire for justice and an inner force of hope. Spare a thought too for the present Kali Yuga and how those old stories from the Gita can help inspire new generations.

What the history of indenture teaches us is that good only overcomes evil, not because it is written in the scriptures, but because it is fought for.

Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. The story of Diwali is recorded in the award–winning book Inside Indian Indenture, co-authored with Professor Goolam Vahed. A limited number of signed copies will be available at Ike’s Books in Florida Road.

Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.


  1. Our youth need to be given lectures about these events on an ongoing basis.There is no one to talk to them of our struggles n sacrifices n how we got to where we are today.All they know is what they see today.Flashy cars houses clothes music food money top jobs n the list goes on.The parents need to be educated together with the kids.They must know what the previous 10 generations suffered to appreciate where they are now n also from a point of knowingness they can also defend their religion culture traditions like LIONS n not timidly like a mouse.Each language group needs to empower their children to not be ashamed of who we are.Stand up strong n defend what you are n have.It is your right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am beholden to those who bring this history of our forefathers to light because many of us have little or no idea of the suffering they endured.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I take my hat off to Indians, who can know this history and still be in awe of whiteness. Everything you revere of Europeans is founded on the most hideous crimes. Our Indians amaze me, in how we’ve approximated to whiteness and call it ‘progress’. This must surely be pathological…


  4. Great read, and very informative, would be nice if these facts were easily available to all of us. Our kids and grandkids don’t know threse facts cos we don’t know then. I am going to educate myself and them.


  5. The historical truths of such magnitude need to be unveiled. Professors Desai and Goolam Vahed book INSIDE INDIAN INDENTURE in 2010 was a seminal contribution not only to RSA Indian history but the history of humanity.The present article is valuable for the young the middle aged and all of us a continuation of a perpetual struggle to understand value and love the history of humanity. Great respect and agreement with the comments before mine.Good morning all.


  6. A great read and proud to be an Indian if only it could be made easier for our kids to and parents alike to read about our great ancestors and the struggle they went throught so that we could be where we are.


  7. Wow, proud 2 b an Indian n a strong follower of Indian history, also a firm believer in Ashwin Desai


  8. I’ve had the great pleasure of listening and speaking with Prof. Desai on a few occasions.
    This part history is factual, fast, like a huge firework spraying, nay, spewing out episodes, like ‘ sparks’ that burn us! Ashwin is always in your face, and you always sense his anger at anyone who lacks the qualities of being a simple, decent human!


  9. I feel ashamed that I had no idea of the life the indentured labourers lived during colonial rule. Thank you for informing us. I want to suggest that we air the struggle of our indentured forefathers in Lotusfm as episodes. Let Indians be informed.


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