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 kāvaţi 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-kāvaţi 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 kāvaţi, 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 kāvaţi festival?
Nowadays, the temple priest tunes the tape recorder, containing songs on Murukan and the whole crowd goes round the temple carrying the kāvaţi 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 kāvaţi. 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.
Kāvaţi 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 kāvaţi 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 Caśţi and Karttikai Tīpam. Some of them who could not carry their kāvaţi 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 Sri 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 kāvaţi 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 kāvaţi cintu, Kanta Caśţi 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.
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.