The Power of Porridge
Good Friday eating is not only about hot cross buns. In South Africa porridge also plays a part.
The author supports Act4Hunger from the ACT Foundation who provide vegan food to appease hunger in KZN and across the world. Please support them here.
The South African public holiday schedule, past and present, makes provision for several key Christian holy days but not the spiritually significant dates of any other religions. The fight for fair allocation of the limited number of possible public holidays is ongoing. While we wait, let us consider the ways in which a group of politically, economically and religiously marginalised South Africans of Tamil ancestry repurposed Good Friday as an annual occasion to venerate the Hindu Mother Goddess Mariamman and her “Porridge Festival”. What follows is the story of imposed change, inspired resistance and soured maize meal…
Since time immemorial, South Indian people have worshipped the Hindu Mother Goddess Mariamman as the bringer of rain and by extension good harvests and prosperity. She is also believed to have the power to cure infectious diseases (especially “heat-based” diseases like measles and smallpox).
The Divine Mother at Shree Ganesha Prathanay Kootum Temple, Buccleuch. (Photo: Guru Deena Govender)
Her fondness for porridge was first made manifest many moons ago. Legend tells of a time when the people of Samayapuram, Tamil Nadu were plagued with drought and disease. A woman garbed in yellow, carrying a pot of fermented porridge, some syringa leaves and turmeric paste came out of the forests. She fed and nursed the sick and when her work was done she vanished. The people whom she had cured sought out their saviour and found her seated under a syringa tree. They asked who she was and how they could thank her for saving the lives of so many. She then explained that she was the Mother of the Universe and asked that every year in the time that she had appeared, her devotees should gather to worship her and distribute holy porridge. Since then, the faithful have paid homage by visiting temples dedicated to the Divine Mother, saying Mariamman poojay (i.e. “porridge prayers”) and making offerings of fermented gruel.
Only in South Africa is this gruel associated with Good Friday. Nirvani Pillay of Tamilculture.com explains: “In India and Indian diaspora communities elsewhere, devotees worship the Goddess Mariamman and her Porridge Festival in the Tamil month of Aadi (which falls within July and August). In South Africa, our unique historical experience has resulted in some slight adaptations to the South Indian practice. Some do recognise the Divine Mother in smaller home-based gatherings during Aadi but one of our main ceremonies occurs over the Easter weekend.” The origins of South Africa’s distinctive date can be traced back to the punitive conditions of service experienced by 19th-century Indian sugar cane workers in what was then the Natal Colony. Kiru Naidoo, author of Made in Chatsworth, observes: “When they first arrived in the 1860s, Indian indentured workers had terrible working and living conditions with almost no time off but people make time for things that are important to them and they made a plan to sustain their religious identity against all odds. The protective, healing energy of the Mother Goddess was central to the spiritual and social support structures of those early arrivals. They slotted into the dominant calendar out of necessity. Easter was when it suited the bosses to be off and as a result that was when cane workers were given off. So, even in the 19th-century devotees in South Africa were using the Good Friday day off to revere the Mother Mariamman.”
The Isipingo Rail Mariamman Temple was constructed in 1870 and the Shree Mariammen Temple in Mount Edgecombe (built in 1898)are amongst the earliest surviving Hindu sites of worship in South Africa but Guru Deena Govender, Head Priest of Shree Ganesha Prathanay Kootum, Buccleuch Temple, Johannesburg explains: “Even before there were bricks and mortar buildings, when they were still just made of reeds, it was a new dawn, a place to seek and find strength and many miracles were bestowed by the grace of the Mother upon devotees.” Word of the Divine Mother’s powers spread. By 1916 The Chronicle newspaper reported a Good Friday crowd of worshippers at Isipingo in excess of 10,000 people.
Kiru Naidoo recalls: “When I was a kid, Chatsworth would shut down on Good Friday. We would wake up early to a breakfast of black tea and hot cross buns and then dress up – I remember my mother in a silk sari with flowers in her hair – and head to the buses. On that day all the buses went to the temple at Isipingo. When you got there it was a huge community event. There were people who fed devotees as an act of charity, others who set up stalls and hawkers too. There was an atmosphere like a funfair. It wasn’t just Hindu people who went. Everybody went across faiths. Our Muslim neighbours went too. People would take those old-fashioned metal toothpaste tubes, clean them up and twist them into depictions of their medical problem areas – so if it was an elbow that hurt they made an elbow, if it was eyes that were diseased an eye shape was fashioned. And you took that effigy to the temple and presented it to the Goddess…There were also offerings made of black running fowl chickens that priests would throw onto the roof and later sacrifice. There was always speculation that a small flock of the same chickens were being fetched from the roof, taken round the back and thrown up again and again…”
Crowds have continued to grow. There are smaller ceremonies at temples all over South Africa but it is still Isipingo and Mount Edgecombe that see the largest Good Friday gatherings. In 2018 Mount Edgecombe welcomed 300,000 devotees. According to Seelan Achary, the chairperson of the Shree Mariammen Temple in Mount Edgecombe: “There are people who have emigrated to Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, even Sweden. There are business people from India or tourists who come here and pray… We see people from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Mpumalanga, and even Free State now. They feel a sense of belonging when they come here and pray. They like to be part of this massive crowd.”
And then came Covid. In line with nationwide lockdown restrictions, all festivities were cancelled in 2020. Guru Deena Govender says: “Last year we advised our people to worship at home and not expose themselves to risk. This year all over the country temples will be observing prayers but following protocol and restricting devotees to 50. We are very aware of the need to prevent or reduce the possibility of a third wave.”
It is not only the date that is South African specific. The porridge offered to the Divine Mother is also infused with Mzansi magic. In India and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora soured rice or ragi millet porridge is served but in South Africa ferments are made from maize. The switch from rice and ragi to maize came about because the former were rare and expensive in the new environment. Ronnie Govender, author of At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories observes: “You were something of a big shot if you had rice served in your house. What most people ate was mealie rice, coarsely crushed corn kernels which had to be cooked very carefully. If you weren’t careful the broken grains would end up as a mushy porridge.”
Cultural contact with Zulu people resulted in the creation of Afro-Asian fusion foods. Techniques and ingredients drawn from Southern African fermented maize porridges (such as incwancwa and mahewu) were incorporated into Indian indentured worker daily diets and their ceremonial offerings. As Kiru Naidoo says: “In KZN, Zulu and Indian culture have liberally borrowed from each other and the commonalities in food and tradition are astounding and beautiful.” The wonderful website Food like Amma Used to Make It has a recipe in which the maize meal sour porridge is complemented with amasi and finely chopped chives. Those tempted to try Amma’s recipe should know that the Divine Mother likes her porridge seriously sour. While standard incwancwa ferments for two to three days, Mariamman’s maize is fermented for five to seven days.
Lemons into lemonade. What began in necessity has become a significant statement of South African specific Tamil identity. Nirvani Pillay observes: “Those of us with South Indian and Tamil heritage are colloquially referred to (and indeed refer to ourselves) as ‘porridge’ or ‘porridge ou’. As in Afrikaans ‘ou’ for man. The term is affectionate and exists to distinguish us from ‘roti ou’ of North Indian ancestry.”
Health officials are advising porridge people, roti people and all other sorts of people to stay at home and stay safe this Good Friday. All over South Africa, temples are responsibly restricting access but there is hope on the horizon. Guru Govender says: “Mother came down in the form of rain. Rain sees no rich or poor. It falls on us all. Rain is growth, healing, sustenance and those are the gifts we seek from the Mother in the time of pandemic. By Her grace, we will come through this terrible disease. My feeling is that by the time of the Aadi we will have felt her blessings…”
Amma’s Sour Porridge
Fermentation time: 7 days
Yield: 1.5 litres
2 litres water
350ml fermented maize
200 ml sour milk
Fresh shallots or chives
To make the fermented maize. Place 2 cups of mealie meal in a sealable container. Add 3 cups of water. Mix then cover and leave aside for 5-7 days.
Once your maize paste has fermented, boil the 2 litres of water on medium heat. Add salt. Lower the heat and add the maize ferment. Stir vigorously to avoid lumps from forming.
Allow the porridge to boil on low heat for 15-20 minutes. The consistency should be runny enough that it can be consumed as a drink. If the porridge is too thick add more water to achieve the desired consistency.
Once the maize meal is cooked through, remove from the stove. Combine with sour milk. Top with chopped shallots and serve warm. DM/TGIFood
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