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Story Publication logo March 26, 2024

How Easter Became a Holy Time for Some Hindus and Muslims

Hindu temple in South Africa

This project looks into political and religious tensions in Africa’s largest Indian community.

Video courtesy of Channels Television.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Good Friday and Easter — along with other days during Holy Week — are some of the most important on the Christian calendar. During this time, Christian communities around the world commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ through a variety of religious rituals and observances.

However, while these dates have religious significance for Christians, they have also become important for some Hindu and Muslim communities in South Africa. The story of Easter’s significance for these South African Hindus and Muslims is intertwined with slavery, colonialism and indentured labor — all of which have shaped the history of modern South Africa.

South African Indians number about 1.5 million people, around 2 percent of the country’s population, concentrated in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Most South African Indians trace their roots to indentured workers who were brought by the British colonial government between 1860 to 1911 to grow the colonial economy by working on sugarcane plantations. The majority of these indentured workers came from modern-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with a smaller percentage coming from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

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For these migrant workers who found themselves in an unfamiliar land, religious ceremonies and rituals provided a way to build community and a shared identity. For the South Indian workers, who largely came from non-Brahmin caste and class backgrounds, amman (goddess) worship was a central part of their religious practices. 

Finding adequate time to worship their goddesses was a challenge for these workers. Historian Kiru Naidoo observed that “when they first arrived in the 1860s, Indian indentured workers had terrible working and living conditions with almost no time off. … 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.”

Thus, these workers decided to dedicate Easter weekend to their goddesses, particularly Mariamman and Draupadi Amman. As community archivist Selvan Naidoo noted, festivals for Mariamman in India are usually held in the Tamil month of Adi (July-August), but in South Africa this festive period was shifted to Easter.

To this day, Easter weekend is an important time for goddess worship for the descendants of these indentured workers. In Mariamman temples around Durban, particularly the temples in Isipingo (built in the 1870s) and Mt. Edgecombe (built in 1890), major celebrations are held around the time of Easter. Because devotees offer Mariamman a sour fermented porridge, her festival is referred to as the “Porridge Festival” or “Porridge Prayer.” In the city of Pietermaritzburg, Good Friday is a time when devotees worship Draupadi Amman. A central component of these Good Friday and Easter festivals is firewalking (thimithi).

In addition to Easter weekend, indentured workers in South Africa received time off at other points in the Christian calendar, such as Christmas. In conversation with Mt. Edgecombe community elder Sathasiva Pillay, Youlendree Appasamy wrote that “many [workers] looked forward to Christmas time — the White sugar mill owners were Christian and so the entire mill enjoyed a break over the Christmas period. New Year’s Day also provided the workers with a break and you’d find most of the barracks community at the beach with sour dosas, liver curry, and puli sadam (sour rice) packed from home — a tradition that continues today.”

There was one time of the year when Indian indentured workers received time off for an observance that didn’t connect to the Christian calendar: commemorations of the Islamic month of Muharram. Although only a small percentage of indentured workers were Muslim, Muharram was observed by indentured Muslims, Hindus, and Christians alike. Commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muharram was celebrated by indentured workers as a carnival of sorts, with processions of thaziyahs, fireworks, drumming, and dancing.

The British colonial administration pejoratively referred to the festival as “Coolie Christmas,” acknowledging its importance to Indian workers across religious backgrounds. Scholars Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed wrote in Inside Indian Indenture that it “was the one time in the year that the indentured from different plantations could come together outside the persistent gaze of the employer.”

However, this multi-religious celebration of Muharram did not last. Beginning in the early 1900s, Hindu missionaries visiting from India, in partnership with middle-class reformers, campaigned against participation in Muharram. These missionaries opposed Hindus celebrating Muharram partly because it was a Muslim occasion, but also because of its exuberant, carnival-like atmosphere. Instead, they introduced Deepavali and Rama Navami as the most important festivals for Hindu workers to celebrate.

Celebrating a Muslim saint

In Cape Town, on the other side of South Africa, Easter weekend has become an important time of the year for some Muslims. The Cape Muslim or Cape Malay community, numbering over 160,000 people, traces its roots to the mid-17th century. As Yaseen Kader wrote, this community “descends from slaves, prisoners, and political exiles transported by the Dutch East India Company to the Western Cape of South Africa.” Cape Muslims have ancestry from modern-day Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Europe, Madagascar and other parts of Africa.

Easter has become an important time for some Cape Muslims to celebrate the memory of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar, who is remembered as a foundational figure for the history of Islam in South Africa. Born into an influential family on the island of Sulawesi in modern-day Indonesia, Yusuf was an Islamic scholar and resistance leader against the Dutch East India Company. He was eventually captured and sent to prisons in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) and Colombo (in Sri Lanka), and was finally exiled to Cape Town, arriving in 1694. Although he died just five years after arriving, he played an important role in popularizing Islam among the city’s enslaved community. Thus, he is remembered as “the father of Islam in South Africa.”

After Shaykh Yusuf’s death, his followers built a Kramat (shrine) around his grave. Although his body was moved to Indonesia six years later, this shrine in South Africa has remained an important pilgrimage site. Easter weekend has become a time for members of the Cape Muslim community to gather at this shrine and honor the memory of Shaykh Yusuf. 

Similar to the indentured workers in KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Muslims gathered together on Easter weekend because it was a long weekend, when most people would receive leave from their employers. Thus emerged the Kramat festival, which according to historian Ebrahim Rhoode dates back to the late 1700s. Cape Muslim families camped around the shrine in tents—a practice that continues to this day. The festival is a time of music and dance, games and sports competitions, prayers, religious lectures, and feasting.

Over time, the Kramat festival has taken on new meanings. For example, the figure of Shaykh Yusuf and the Kramat festival have been leveraged by the South African and Indonesian governments to promote diplomatic and cultural ties. The Indonesian government named Shaykh Yusuf as a National Hero in 1995. In 1997, South African president Nelson Mandela visited Shaykh Yusuf’s shrine along with Indonesian president Suharto. In 2005, the South African government recognized Shaykh Yusuf with a civilian honor, Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo.

In 2019, the Kramat festival was cancelled due to a water shortage. It wasn’t held in the following years due to the recent pandemic. This year, and likely for the next couple years, the Kramat festival will not be celebrated at Shaykh Yusuf’s shrine because Easter overlaps with the holy month of Ramadan. However, the Indonesian Consulate in Cape Town has organized smaller Kramat festival celebrations at times other than Easter weekend. And with the movement of the lunar calendar, the festival will eventually be celebrated again at Shaykh Yusuf’s Kramat.

Transformation and adaptation

These examples show how South African Hindu and Muslim communities kept traditions alive, and developed new traditions, in the face of severe challenges and constraints imposed by slavery and indentureship.

This process of adaptation to a dominant Christian calendar can be seen in other parts of the Indian “indentured diaspora.” In the town of Siparia in Trinidad, an annual pilgrimage takes place on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to a Catholic church. Many of these pilgrims are not Catholic, but rather Hindus who are descended from Indian indentured workers.

This church is home to a dark-skinned icon of the Virgin Mary, known as “La Divina Pastora” (“The Holy Shepherdess”). For Hindu pilgrims, she is Siparee Mai (Mother of Siparia), revered as a form of Durga or Kali. According to the Catholic calendar, the feast day of La Divina Pastora takes place weeks later, on the third Sunday after Easter. However, according to scholar Keith McNeal, it is likely that Hindu pilgrims visit Siparee Mai during Easter weekend because that was a time when their indentured ancestors received days off from their work on plantations.

Even in recent decades in South Africa, the Easter weekend has been a time for new celebrations to emerge. In 1986, an ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple was built in the Indian township of Chatsworth, near Durban. A few years later, in 1989, the temple began hosting its annual Ratha Yatra celebration as “The Festival of Chariots.”

Unlike Ratha Yatra celebrations in India and other parts of the world, which usually take place in late June or July, Durban’s Festival of Chariots is celebrated over Easter weekend. In his book “Melancholia of Freedom,” scholar Thomas Blom Hansen notes that the Festival of Chariots was “one of the first multiracial events allowed on the Durban beachfront — although most of the devotees in the early years were indeed white. Since then it has grown into a regular event that conspicuously displays symbols of Hinduism, and thus Indianness by association, in the heart of the city.”

Around the world, even in countries with secular governments, the calendar of the dominant religious community shapes public and private life. This has important consequences for religious minority communities. As scholars Megan Goodwin and Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst argue, “Calendars are not neutral. They can't be. They are about establishing one way of thinking about the world.”

In colonial South Africa, the European white population’s Christian calendar became the dominant calendar for all people. Hindus, Muslims and other non-Christian communities displayed resilience and creativity by adapting their own religious practices to fit within the constraints of the Christian calendar, and creating new traditions in the process.

Even though the days of slavery and indentured labor in South Africa are long gone, the Hindu and Muslim festivities that take place on Easter weekend have become beloved occasions for their respective communities. Through firewalking, feasting, camping and celebrating, South African Hindus and Muslims have made Easter their own.


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