2010 marks 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Indian indentured workers and the birth of this community in South Africa. Durban is home to the largest Indian population in South Africa. They contribute to the multicultural atmosphere of the city and many Indian rituals and traditions can still be observed today.

From bondage to freedom - The 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian workers in South Africa

Indenture and Freedom

Between November 1860 and 1911 (when the system of indentured labour was stopped) nearly 152 184 indentured workers from across India arrived in Durban. But in 1885, in order to maintain the labour, a 3 pound tax was implemented on formerly indentured Indians who failed to reindenture or return to India after completing their contracts.  By 1910, nearly 26.85% indentured men returned to India, but most chose to stay and thus constituted the forbearers of the majority of present-day South African Indians.

After completing their indenture, many rented land to grow fruit and vegetables for the local market. In 1885, the Wragg-Commission noted that Indians dominated the food produce market.

Those who did not turn to the food market, became entrepreneurs and opened stores and hotels, while others made a living through gardening, hawking and fishing. In order to force Indians into employment, the government introduced in 1910, a 3 pound tax on all non indentured adults, boys under 16 and girls under 12 and older. Many workers were forced to reindenture to avoid tax. By 1913, approximately two-thirds of workers were on second and third contracts. In 1914, this tax was abolished after the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1913.

Passenger Indians

Indian culture and way of life necessitated commodities such as payer goods, spices, cooking utensils, religious books and clothing. This is where the Passenger Indians came in and fulfilled the need for traders. This group who were mainly Gujerati speaking, but included a stronger contingent from South India, were able to maintain links with India through travel and visits to home villages. The first Indian shop  which sold condiments and other delicacies was opened in Field Street by Bauboo Naidoo.

In 1875, the first ‘Arab’ store was opened in West Street by Aboobaker Amod, a Memon trader from Porbander. Muslims refereed to themselves as 'Arab' to distinguish themselves from other Indians. About two decades after Indians settled here, the Wagg Commission observed that the anti-Indian sentiment was driven by White traders, farmers and workers who feared agricultural competition.

In addition, the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce noted a growing fear from White settlers and their demand for all Indian traders to be lawfully required to produce identity documents with a photograph on demand. Despite all this, the Indian trader prospered, much to the disappointment of the White settlers.

Many Indian traders became successful by trading with the local Black population in the remote areas by selling items in small quantities and giving items on credit. Often their goods were cheaper than their White counterparts. This made the White traders very envious and prompted them to influence the government to pass numerous laws that would restrict the Indian trader’s right to a living and trade. However, the government failed in its attempts to destroy the Indian trader.

Areas of Settlement

Indentured labourers had to be given accommodation by their employers; however, they had to find their own way after indenture. Those who turned to agriculture usually stayed on the land which they were renting.

The railways as well as the Municipality erected barracks for their Indian labourers. Similar constructions were erected by other employers throughout the Durban area. But due to the shortage of housing, these and similar constructions became overcrowded and soon turned into slums. In the central town area,merchant class Muslims settled in a racially exclusive central district of Durban. Some traders lived in their shops while others rented flats just above their businesses. Later these also became overcrowded. Meanwhile the citizens of Durban were not happy with the arrival of the Indians in the town areas. They regarded this as an unwarranted intrusion upon the colonial atmosphere.

The government realised that the housing problem had to be solved and thus set aside several locations for Indians in areas around Natal.  But living conditions in these areas were poor as families lived in cramped yards, sharing a communal toilet.

The main areas that Indians occupied were beyond the Umgeni River, in Riverside and Prospect Hall and further inland at Duikerfontein and Sea Cow Lake. Springfield and Sydenham were also predominantly Indian. Indians also settled in areas such as Mayville, Cato Manor, Clairwood and Magazine Barracks, and the Bluff.

Even though informal segregation existed at this time, it was not until 1922 that the first major restriction came about when the municipality reserved the right to exclude Indians from purchasing any municipal land.

The Slums Act was passed in 1934 in order improve conditions and to facilitate ‘slum clearance’ in the city. In actual fact the Act meant the expropriation of Indian property. One of the main ideas behind this being city cleanup and industrial expansion.  However, as late as the 1970’s Indians in places like Tin Town in Springfield still lived in shacks without basic services.

By 1936, only 20% of Indians owned houses in Durban that were made of brick, stone or concrete, the rest lived in wood and iron structures. The government did not provide electricity as they did not trust that the Indians could handle it.

In the 1940’s the Pegging Acts of 1942 – 43 and the Ghetto Act of 1946 were passed. This act gave the government the right to remove and destroy shacks and homes in some areas under the pretext of improving unsanitary living conditions. In the 1940’s measures to contain the aforementioned ‘Indian penetration’ became a major focus of Indian community activism (see Passive Resistance Campaign 1946).

The Ghetto Act paved the way for the Group Areas Act passed in 1950, which proclaimed certain areas White. This meant that the non-White communities who found themselves in these areas would have to be moved to other areas designated as ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’ or ‘African’. Therefore, Indian residents in Durban, like all non-White South Africans, were segregated by race.

This caused a major uproar and led to the two year passive resistance campaign from 1946 to 1948 when several thousand Indians courted arrest. Despite the protests, the act was passed in 1948. The Group Areas Act formalised the process.

By 1950, the Group Areas Act was created by the apartheid government. This act displaced thousands of Indians and Africans from their homes and businesses.

Indians were removed from areas such as Mayvile, Cato Manor, Clairwood and Magazine Barracks, and the Bluff. By 1950 there were adverts in the newspapers for an exclusively Indian suburb called ‘Umhlatuzana’. Later, Red Hill and Silverglen (later Chatsworth) were also advertised.  Reservoir Hills, which was also declared an Indian area was able for the more well to do Indians. In the north of Durban, La Mercy and Isipingo Beach were also designated Indian areas. In Merebank, purpose built houses replaced the poor settlements and by the late 1950’s a reconstructed Merebank offered cheap houses for which the purchaser had ten years to pay.

Planned in 1960 the largest designated Indian area, Chatsworth, opened in 1964. It consisted of eleven neighbourhood units containing 7000 sub-economic and 14 000 economic houses. It was deliberately built to act as buffer between the White residential areas and the large African township of Umlazi in Durban.

In Mount Edgecombe, indentured migrants occupied tent-like homes near the temple and workers were housed on the sugar mill. Some of the structures had existed for more than a hundred years before the newer structure near Campbells Town and the surrounding areas came about.

The community at Mount Edgecombe was a poor one where entertainment was an important part of daily life. However, with the introduction of upmarket estates, the fortunes of people living there today are very different to what they were many years ago.

Today, the majority of Indians still live in these areas.


Indians were regarded by the British as a ‘temporary investment”, thus, for almost a decade, they made no educational provisions for workers of their children.

Workers quickly realised that being educated in their mother tongue was not enough to succeed in South Africa, while many employers were under the mistaken notion that many of them were illiterate.

The missionaries were the first to establish schools for Indians. The first school, erected by the Roman Catholic Church in 1867, housed 30 pupils. By 1883, 21 mission schools were established in Natal. Parents also made efforts to teach their children their mother tongue.

In 1896, the first government recognised Indian school offering lessons in English was opened. A government grant was made available to Rev Ralph Stott to run a day school for children of plantation Indians. Evening classes were held for older pupils but both schools catered only for boys.

Up to 1894, the children of Indians with ‘European habits’ were admitted to the Government Model School in Durban.

In 1878, government began to involve itself in Indian education and by 1885, there were 24 state-aided schools for Indians. By 1889, the admission of male pupils to European schools ceased, girls, however were allowed to attend until 1905.

By 1909, there were 35 Indian schools, 31 of which were government-aided. In the same year, an Education Commission recommended that it should be made compulsory for the holder of any estate where there were 20 or more children of indentured workers between five and twelve years of age to provide basic education, using teachers of their own nationality.

1927, was a significant turning point for Indians in South Africa as Cape Town Agreement was concluded between South Africa and India. By then only a third of Indian children were attending school. Although, there was an increase in enrolment, most schools were ‘aided’ and parents had to raise funds to pay towards the cost of the building.

Unemployment and poverty

During the inter-war years unemployment and low pay resulted in larger scale poverty amongst the Indians. The situation was the result of White labour policy which saw a drop in Indian employment in industry and was exacerbated by the depression. Extensive poverty became a pervasive feature in Indian life in Durban during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Diseases like T.B and bronchial asthma manifested due to extreme poverty. In places like Cato Manor, the clay soil and cement floors caused rheumatism, arthritis and chest infections. Dysentery, diarrhoea and pneumonia were also present due to poor diet, defective sanitation, overcrowding and lack of ventilation.

Family, religion and language

Sport, welfare, educational organisations, family and religion all formed a crucial part in racial and ethnic identity amongst the Indians in Durban. The apartheid system allowed the Indians to rebuild aspects of their social and economic life with the minimum outside influence.

They created a new life for themselves that was not based on the one they left behind in India as culture was modified by new occupations and circumstances which changed their needs.

Family membership was the most crucial element in Durban. The extended family household was very common with brothers, their wives and children living in a common household with the father of the men as patriarch.

Marriage across race, language and religious lines were rare, even marriages across religious lines caused great unhappiness amongst the groups.  In the early years, Indians considered marriage within the group as extremely important for maintaining group identity. This tradition is slowly dying out as inter-religious and even inter-racial marriages are becoming more common.

Women played a crucial role in the construction of social and economic life in Durban. The mother was and still is pivotal.

The extended family was an essential means of surviving in the urban milieu and should not be seen as a force because of tradition brought from India. Social and economic responsibilities were clearly demarcated in the household and resources were pooled in a common family budget. This system allowed many families to escape the extreme poverty. Income pooling and co-residence all contributed to the family cohesion.

Males had greater access to education and jobs, were more involved in sports, community and political organisations and had greater freedom of movement.

Closeness was maintained with cultural heritage which was reinforced by ethnic and racial clustering. The family promoted and strengthened ethnic identity and emphasized community-minded ethic.


The majority of Indians that live in Durban are Hindus. In 1936, there were 79, 64% Hindus compared to the 14, 74% Muslims and a small percentage were Christian.

The Hindus in Natal were mainly Sanatharist which is more popular and less scripturally orientated. They place strong emphasis on the myths, legends and vibrant stories which abound in ancient Hindu epic scriptures. Religious culture affected every aspect of life and because it was part of folk tradition in all parts of India, local Hindus were able to transcend regional, cultural and linguistic differences.

Mosques and Temples

The building of mosques and temples in Natal was an important step in reconstructing religious life and these became a community centre. The building of temples became a community effort and was considered a sacred act. Initially, Indians erected tiny wattle and daub thatch shrines and temples on sugar cane estates. The earliest temples include those at Umbilo (1869), Mount Edgecombe (1875), Newlands (1896), Cato Manor (1882), Ispingo Rail (1870) and Sea View (1910). In 1869, the first wood and iron temple was built in Rossburgh near Clairwood. The tradition of building temples whenever a community was formed was continued by Free Indians. The building of temples was a major achievement for the Indians given their poverty, arduous work and confinement to specific plantations. The temples not only helped preserve religion but became a source of security for many. It was here that communal worship was experienced, communal births, marriages and death ceremonies were observed and festivals carried out.

Grey Street Mosque

The mosque which was also a means to building community spirit became the centre of Muslim worship and congregational prayer. The first mosque was built in 1881 in Grey Street by passenger Indians, Aboobaker Jhavery and Hajee Mohamed Dada. It is the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere. The second mosque was built in 1885 by Ahmed Tilly and Hoosen Meeran in West Street.

In an effort to teach Islam to adults and children alike, Mohamed Ebrahim Soofie established mosques and madrasahs all over Durban. Born in Bombay, Soofie who arrived in Durban in 1895, displayed mystic tendencies and was very interested in Sufism. Soofie built mosques and madrasahs in Riverside (1896), Springfield (1904), Westville (1904), Overport (1905), Sherwood (1905), and Sea Cow Lake (1906). At the time of his death in 1910, Soofie had built a total of 13 mosques.

Muslim children still attend madrasahs and many of the original schools are still continuing today. There are also many other private smaller madrasahs that have spring up all around Durban to accommodate children living now in areas that was previously reserved for “Whites only.”

Visits from missionaries from India increased knowledge and awareness amongst Indians in South Africa. Bodies were established to unite Hindus and impose common practices and festivals. These religious bodies provided direction in the fields of vernacular education and religious training. In 1906, Professor Bhai Parmanand formed the Hindu Young Men’s Society and encouraged members to study Tamil, to engage in missionary work and to visit India in order to understand their cultural heritage. Swami Shankeranand followed in 1908 and established Hindu societies in Sydenham, Mayville and Sea Cow Lake. Swami Shankeranand encouraged Hindus to circulate money amongst them in order to establish educational institutions, political bodies and co-operative movements.

In order to unite Hindu market gardeners, he established the Indian Farmer’ Association. The Swami, who was conservative, was determined to forge a strong environment through conciliation with the white authorities that were favourable to the teaching of Hindu religion, culture and language. In 1909, he got the Durban Veda Dharma Sabha to choose the licensing officer to present an address to the retiring Governor of Natal. Many were not happy with this as Indians were experiencing licensing problems and this gesture would indicate that all was well in this area. When King Edward died in May 1910, the Swami called on all Hindus to observe mourning. He also tried to organise a sports and festivities day to mark the coronation of the new King and he obtained leave for indentured Indians to attend funeral services. He was opposed to Gandhi and his passive resistance efforts as he believed that the authorities were prejudiced against such actions.

In 1912, the Swami organised a conference to systematize Hinduism, which led to the formation of the Hindu Maha Sabha. The objective of this organisation was to promote friendship and unity amongst Hindus, to improve general knowledge through reading, encourage the growth of Hindi, and to create a love for the motherland and assist the needy. Through his untiring efforts, the Swami increased religious awareness.

Between 1905 and 1915, 12 Hindu organisations emerged due to the efforts of visiting scholars. The Gandhi-Tagore Lectureship Trust, established in 1946, aimed to bring out a lecturer every year to educate Indians in Natal on culture, philosophy, ethics and civilisation.

In 1946, The Maha Sabha designed a flag which is still used at temples, schools and private homes.

Religious education and drama

Hinduism was mainly taught at home while temples served as a source of community bonding. The religion was initially taught by parents while elders recited mythological stories from Indian literature to the young or told religious stories orally.  From the early 1900’s, books on prayers, histories of divine saints and places and praise poems were sold by Moothoosamy Bros in Grey Street. In 1931, VMM Archary wrote the “Thotra Malai” which contained sixteen short prayers that were sung at different times of the day. Hindus performed “pujas” which is a prayer performed by a pandit (priest) for every significant event, a tradition which still continues today. Prayer flags called “ jhandi” are raised in front  of the house. These were made from bamboo poles which flew a red pennant and it remaines there until the next puja is performed. The jhandi makes it easy to recognise a Hindu home in the area.

Other ceremonies include the Katha readings which are stories and songs with a religious point that are read by a priest to mark an important occasion or to fulfil some vow. Satsangs (readings and songs from scriptures) and Yagnas, which were intricate and costly sets of rites and sermons, were also held.

A room is generally set aside for devotional prayer with the mother lightening the God lamp at sunset and sunrise for the whole family to pray. This nurtured a collective feeling and a common cause of worship.

Muslims received formal education from a very young age at madrasahs, which were in the early days, usually attached to the mosques. One of the earliest madrasahs was the Anjuman Islam School which was opened in 1909 and attached to the West Street Mosque. Similarly, the May Street Mosque also had a madrasah attached to it in 1920. The Hajee Ahmed Mohammed Lockhat Wakuff (Trust) established in 1922 by AM Lockhat established a number of madrasahs around the Durban area, many of them still exist today. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, leaders like AI Kajee aand MM Moola attempted to combine religious and secular education by building schools such as South Coast Madrasah State Aided School, the Ahmedia State Aided  Indian School, Anjuman Islam State Aided School and Orient Islamic High School.



Hindu festival Kavadi. Source: unkown

According to Goolam Vahed, Indian festivals and rituals are very visible markers of racial and ethnic identity and strengthen the links between individuals and the communities in which they live. The major Muslim festival called Mohurram is held on the tenth day of Mohurram, which is a month in the Islamic calendar. This festival is held to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed PBUH) who was killed on this day in battle. In the early days, Hindus even participated in this festival as there was a great feeling of unity amongst the Indian community.

During the early 1900’s, preparations for the festival began two weeks before the actual day. Bamboo and other materials were collected to build a tajjia, a miniature mausoleum constructed in wood and covered in coloured paper with gold and silver tinsel. The mausoleum, which was between 15 to 25 feet in height, consisted of three levels, each, rising from within the other. The craft of building tajjias was passed on from generation to generation and undertaken with great care and pride. Each area attempted to build the most attractive tajjia.

On the tenth day of Mohurram, people gathered around each tajjia, pulled it by hand while singing songs in memory of Hussan and beating on drums or carrying out stick fights. The chariots were led by dancers who painted their faces and bodies as “tigers who were supposed to prevent the corpses of slain martyrs from being crushed at the battle where Hussan was killed” (Vahed, p192). The tigers were excellent wrestlers and later during the day, the wrestlers from the different districts would compete against each other to determine who the best wrestler was.

The tajjias were usually dumped into a river or the sea. Although this practice continues to be a feature in some of the communities, it is slowly fading out. The festival of Mohurram provides an opportunity for expressing local community and neighbourhood identity. It united families and neighbourhoods.

Although this festival is not so widely practised today, there are communities like the  Clairwood community which still carry out the rituals on a yearly basis.


Kavady is celebrated in February and May each year in honour of God Muruga, who Hindus believe has the power to cure people of their illnesses and gets ride of misfortune. Those who have been afflicted with disease or sickness, fast, pray and use kavady as a means of penance. Some participants stick needles and pins in their tongues and cheeks, or draw chariots with strings knotted into large hooks protruding from the fleshy parts of their bodies. The procession which started from the river bank ended at the temple. The Kavady is made from a bamboo which is bent into an arch and decorated with marigolds, ferns, palm shoots, peacock feathers and coconuts. A brass container filled with milk is attached to each corner which the devotee uses to wash the statuette of the deity. Thousands attend the Kavady festival in order to be blessed by participants. In the early days, people travelled long distances to the temples with clothing and utensils and stayed there for several days until the festival was over. This also strengthened the link between the individual and the community. The Kavady festival is still a very strong part of Hindu tradition which continues today.


The Mariamman (commonly known as porridge prayers) is a festival associated with the Goddess who is believed to be the cause and cure of various infectious diseases including smallpox and measles. During this festival, devotees offer “cool foods” (Vahed, p197) such as milk porridge, pumpkin and coconut to the Goddess to cool her anger. The food which is placed in a bucket around the temple is eaten by the devotees. A chicken or goat is usually sacrificed and the blood spilt on the earth to represent life and fertility. This festival which is celebrated on Good Friday is attended by many.

Draupadi (firewalking)

Draupadi ( firewalking). Source: www.warthog.co.za

The Draupadi festival, commonly known as firewalking, is celebrated annually in March, in honour of the Goddess Draupadi who is regarded by Hindus as “the model of duty, love and devotion and who bore various trails with great fortitude” (Vahed, p198). According to South Indian tradition, the Goddess walked on fire in order to cleanse herself from attempts to degrade her. The ceremony involves devotees, called ‘Soutris’, walking through a ten metre fire pit and those who have faith in the Goddess believe that she walks the coals before them and cools it. Devotees bless the crowd by placing holy ash on their foreheads.


The festival of Diwali is the most celebrated amongst the Hindu communities both in Durban and around South Africa. Known as the ‘festival of lights,” it is celebrated at the end of the autumn harvest in India with ceremonial worship of the Goddess of wealth and learning.


The retention of the vernacular language was an important concern for Indians during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The Hindu Maha Sabha which was formed in 1912 encouraged the growth of Hindi. In 1925, the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha was formed to promote art, culture and civilization of India and to promote the study of Indian languages. From 1936, free vernacular classes for adults was organised by the Vedic Educational Society. By 1945, the Sabha had 29 affiliate institutions that followed a uniform syllabus. The Tamil, Gujerati and Telegu communities also formed similar organisations to teach the vernacular.

The vernacular schools which were run between 3pm and 5pm taught grammar, singing and provided general religious knowledge. Not many of these exist today and much of the language has been lost as the majority of younger generation Indians cannot speak their vernacular language.  English has become the language in most Indian homes in Durban.

From the 1920’s and 1930’s, Hindi music record and sound films played a significant role in Indian life in Durban. The cinema became a regular feature for many Indians living in Durban. There were five or 6 theatres in central Durban, one in Mayville and one in Jacobs. People often travelled great distances to see these movies. The theatres were Indian owned, particularly by the Moosa and Rawat families. The films had a positive impact for the language retention and became a source of religious education fro many Indians South Africans. Today Indian movies are still widely watched by young and old alike although most have English subtitles. Cinemas like the one at Suncoast regularly screen Indian movies to cater for the huge Indian population in Durban.

The films made accessible a large number of songs which became important in cultivating Indian language. Stores like Roopanand Brothers and Orient Saloon opened where people could purchase the songs.

Indians in South Africa could not get by with vernacular only as a result of language difference amongst them and it should be remembered that they operated in a colonial urban milieu where they had to communicate with others who spoke other languages. Initially, they used Fanagalo, a mixture of Zulu, English and Afrikaans but over time a distinct South African English became the main language of communication between Indians. The vernacular remained the language of the home for most until the 1960’s, thereafter, English became the main language and by 1990, 97,5% of Indians regarded it as their first language.


Durban is famous for its ‘bunny chow’. This popular takeaway, which is a bread and curry dish, is made by hollowing out the centre portion of the bread, filling it with curry and then capping it with the portion that was cut out. There are many stories as to how, when and where the popular takeaway originated. One story is that originated in a ‘Bania’ (a name used for the Gujerati speaking people) restaurant, in Grey Street, Durban. Another story states that migrant workers needed to hold their vegetable curries in a form of container and resorted to using their bread to hold their lunch together.

But whatever the story, a trip to Durban will not be the same without trying the ‘bunny chow.’


The Indians in Durban have and still contribute greatly towards the growth of this Province. Their festivals, temples, mosques and culture continue to be a great tourist attraction for this city.

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