I met Aunty Devi (Mrs Govender) at the temple. She always had a beaming smile and was full of kindness. Over time I got to see how she cooked big pots of food for the temple for most of the festivals including Kavady and MarieAmman prayers. She was always chopping up veggies, braising spices, frying goolgoolas and vedas or preparing the ‘pongasadho and kudla’ (sweet rice and braised chickpeas). During festivals she would work tirelessly with very little sleep. I admired her independence as she would Uber herself around if she needed to be at the temple late into the night or at the crack of dawn.
I got to know her a little more each time and one day in early December she came up to me and said, “Did you hear that I have cancer?” I was too shocked to respond with anything intelligible. I asked her a flurry of questions but mostly wanting to know if she is ok. Her response was that her faith in the Divine Mother will take her through. So far she has been through multiple chemo sessions. Before her diagnosis she had confirmed to do the Katheri and Minusperan prayer for my new niece. She insisted that she was absolutely ok to do the prayer. I do not have children of my own but my sister has a boy and a girl. Unfortunately, as time goes on there is a lack of awareness of what must be done for new children. There is not much available information on certain Tamil rituals for people to perform it on their own and it generally works that someone knows someone else who knows an aunty who knows how to do this prayer. Turns out that Aunty Devi is the one who is the resident authority in Johannesburg, having moved here ten years ago.
I try to use every opportunity to expand my own awareness of prayers especially because we are fast declining into a westernised lifestyle. I decided that I would share Aunty Devi’s story because we have so much to learn from her years of experience, not just in terms of looking adversity in the face but in using the talents we have been given to make positive changes to others around us.
I saw Aunty Devi in the temple for Shivarathri on 21 February where we spent the entire night awake and she said that she bought the rooster and the chicken. I was unsure what my sister had arranged with her but I felt my eyes widen and respond in confusion, ‘You bought the chickens?” She affirmed and said she would see me on Sunday at my sister’s house. They had been in contact about preparations which included a list; [sweet rice, rotis, manja, koongum, black and white cotton, a sari, black bangles, koikutta, banana leaves, fruit, coconut, betel leaves and nuts]. I had virtually no idea what the chickens were for but more on that later.
I got to my sister’s house at a respectable 09h30 to start grinding soaked pea dhall for veda. My mum had prepared the pongasadho and moulded the koikutta with her fingers (rice flour sweet that can also be used as ghee lamps). Aunty Devi arrived smiling and full of bright energy. She got straight to work right away and we followed her instructions. As the day progressed we got to talking about her cancer.
One day while cooking during Skanda Shasti she felt a sharp pain go through her arm and breast. She decided to go to her doctor for tests where they took biopsies. Before her test results could come out she was asked to cook at a Nelangu in Durban to where she travelled. On the Friday morning while she was preparing for the 150 person feast she received a call from her doctor informing her that her results had come back and that she was positive for breast cancer. She was in shock for a moment and the people around her teared. She remained strong. She had a task to complete so went about with her food preparations as normal. She returned to Johannesburg and faced a series of chemotherapies which will continue for another 13 sessions. Her mastectomy is due very soon. She says in her Aunty Devi manner ‘I just want to cut these breasts out’. She can only do this after her series of chemotherapies to ensure that the cancer does not spread to her further lymph nodes.
It is really difficult for me to hear this without thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong in the world. I wonder how it could be that someone so giving, kind and positive has to face this horrible journey and yet there are some really miserable witches that exist in society who live the most graceful and selfish lives (yes, this was exactly my thought). Aunty Devi has three daughters, two of whom I have met at the temple. She has raised them well. They are kind and supportive but she tells me that if anyone gets on their wrong side then all hell will be let loose. I liked the sound of that a lot.
Back to the Minusperan and Katheri prayers…
Aunty Devi guided us on preparations. The morning prayer was for Minusperan who is the gatekeeper for Mother Katheri. Here sweet rice on top of rotis is offered along with fruit, milk and a coconut. Thereafter there is a call for the rooster and chicken signalling their contribution towards the protection of the children. This may not align with sensitive readers but in the South African Tamil community there are very ancient forms of practice that have been passed down five generations. The villagers worshipped the Divine Mother in all her forms. In her form as Katheri she is known as the protector of every new born child. In doing so they offered a sacrifice. The norm here is to offer one rooster and one black chicken. These are slaughtered in the kindest manner after a prayer. Preparations began for the afternoon Katheri prayer. I urge the readers to have an open mind about this process. Remember that these traditions have been passed on from ancestors and the current practice is intended to stay as close to the original teachings as possible. It is usual that following the Katheri prayer the newborn child’s hair is removed – taking away the memories of past lives with it.
On the ground were nine mounds of earth for Bhooma-Devi’s ‘home’. On each mound an offering of food each with rice, mixed vegetable curry with dried fish, boiled egg, braised moorenkire, veda, goolgoola, koikutta and some of the chicken curry. A few pieces of the rooster were dry fried too. The legend goes that this prayer is to be witnessed only by women because Katheri (known as the sister of Durga and Kali) arrives naked and we place a sari for her to cover herself with. The women then turn vilakku (fire-lamp) for the offerings. In my observation the new mother takes on the form of Katheri in terms of protection as she holds the baby and is covered with the sari before re-entering the home. My mind races towards ancient traditions and how there is some element of theatrics and symbolism to all ancient and pagan belief systems that can only be described as pure in their intent.
Aunty Devi is slowing down now. She is still called to do ‘leg baths’ for newborns and for other child related prayers in Johannesburg. She has stopped cooking at the temple as her body is increasingly fragile from her treatment but she is convinced this is a short term limitation and we absolutely believe her. It is no coincidence that her name is Devi. She has unwavering and enviable faith in the Divine Mother. She explains how nothing could ever happen which would destroy this faith, not even this disgusting cancer. She still wants to help other people despite her own battles. She wants this story about Minusperan and Katheri to inspire other young Tamil families in South Africa to continue the legacy given to us by our Tamil forefathers and to proudly carry the traditions forward.
I hope that the story of Aunty Devi is one that will inspire many readers far and wide, especially those South African Tamils living abroad, of our roots which remain firmly planted on this African soil now.
My sister, Lorisha Pillay, kept a log of preparations and here is her step-guide:
Day before prayer:
Soak Dhall for veda overnight.
Morning prep for Minusperan Prayer:
1. Make roti – 13 required
2. Cook sweetrice
3. Wash 3x fruit and coconut.
4. Make Koicutter – leave aside for afternoon prayer
5. Wash dhall, leave aside to dry on newspaper. When ready, grind, and leave aside for preparing veda for afternoon prayer. You will also need onion, dhania and green/red chillies to be prepped for the final veda mix.
6. Boil dry fish for afternoon’s mixed curry.
7. Boil eggs for afternoon.
8. Cook rice for afternoon.
Assembly outside the house:
1. Aim to commence assembly by 10-10:30 so that the prayer can commence at 11am. You will require 5 bricks to be washed. Then decorate with 3 lines (using ashes mixed with a bit of water to form a paste). Put a kungum dot in the centre line.
2. You will then place the 5 stones standing up on the ground. 3 on the one side, and 2 facing opposite.
3. Using the white cotton, prepare white strings (with 5 knots) for each family member and place across the top of each stone.
4. You then need to prepare 2 plates/banana leaves.
a. The row of 3 stones will contain 3 rotis, a spoonful of sweetrice and 3 x fruit. You will also place a milk, agrabathi and a small tot of alcohol. 3 camphors in front of the plate of food.
b. The row of 2 stones will contain 2 rotis. Place a spoonful of sweetrice, together with 3 kinds of fruit. 2 camphors in front of the plate of food.
5. The 2 stones represent the Minusperan, as each deity has a protector. You will start to light the camphor, turn the coconut, put water on the coconut and then break.
6. Then light camphor and pray to Minispirin.
7. The 3 stones represents Minispirin.
8. The entire family can pray at once – all touching each other, while the head of the family turns.
9. The head of the family will then turn camphor for the chicken. The white chicken is slaughtered first and then the black then chicken. The head of the white chicken is placed on a banana leaf by Minispirin and water is splashed into its open beak.
10. Once most of the blood is drained (approx. 1-2 minutes), it is immediately placed into 2 separate pots.
The morning prayer is now complete and the chicken is prepared for the afternoon prayer.
Preparation of the chicken:
2 -3 litres of boiling water is poured into the pots to submerge the chicken. After 5 minutes of soaking, the chicken can be de-feathered, cleaned and cut.
The black chicken can be prepared into a fresh chicken curry, adding any ingredients to your preference (e.g. potato/gadra beans/peas).
The white chicken – the whole quarter leg, breast, jublet and liver can be spiced and dry roasted.
Assembly outside the house:
Making the mud houses: nine mounds of earth to replicate the form of a home in a square with the ninth mound placed at the centre
Preparation of 9 plates: Veda, Goolgola, Koicutter, Rice, Mixed Curry with Dryfish, Chicken Curry, Boiled Egg, Fruit. Camphor in front of each plate.
Main plate in the centre- Sari + baby bangles. Ensure that all the parts of the chicken – foot, jublet, liver etc are also placed here.
No men allowed – meaning is that the mother comes to the prayer in her pure form without any clothes. The sari is there to clothe her.
The MOM will pray first, turning the coconut and breaking it, then turning divakalsum, everyone else in the house (females) can turn as well. The baby is brought and left in the centre of the house on a blanket. She is blessed. Adorned with the bangles. The mother then sits down carrying the baby in hand, and eats from the centre plate. Each female member takes one plate and consumes the food outside.
All the sand is then collected and placed in one spot in the garden. And leftover food can be buried underneath. Camphor is placed on top of the centre of the sand, and the mother once again turns and pray.
The prayer has officially ended.
In my research I found this from Roy Pillay as a step guide for this prayer: https://www.slideshare.net/pillayroy/katheri-minnesprin
Disclaimer: Please also note that the above is based on my own observations and that I am not schooled in Tamil rituals but I ask questions and record them for self-development. My articles are only intended to share experiences and not to be seen as the authority on how rituals should be performed both in South Africa and abroad.