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Girmitya's gift to her family

Shayal Devi
Sunday, November 12, 2017

OFTEN tales pertaining to the girmitya are laced with struggle and hardship.

Years of suffering and turmoil culminated in a fresh start for those of Indian descent who chose to stay and make Fiji their home.

Such is the story of Thulkanam, who was among the last girmitya to arrive in Fiji when she was about five years old, her family recalls.

A resident of the farming community at Malele, Tavua, Thulkanam built the Malele Mariamman Temple, the only place of worship for families in the area.

And after her passing, the duty of maintaining the temple fell to her daughter-in-law.

Today, the late Thulkanam's granddaughter-in-law Dewanamma, 53, helps maintain the family temple and its legacy.

Originally from Tavarau, Ba, she says she was married 36 years ago and since then has been looking after the temple, helping organise prayers each year.

"It started very small, it was just a small place in a thatched bure," she says.

"I remember the stories my husband's family told us about the temple. My husband's paternal grandmother started this temple. She travelled from Tavua to Nadi to get the murthi (idols) made and brought it back with her via bus. That was how determined she was.

"She was a well-respected woman and treated as the matriarch of the community. She was also very protective of her temple and very religious."

Natural calamities such as cyclones led to the destruction of the original thatched bure temple years after it was built.

"There were a few cyclones in those times and I remember the temple was destroyed during Hurricane Bebe. We were devastated but we found a way to continue going."

Contributions from family members and other parties helped restore the temple once more, building a concrete structure instead of the original thatched bure. Recurring contributions and assistance from immediate and close-knit family and friends have allowed temple caretakers to expand the structure in recent years and conduct upgrade work.

According to Ms Dewanamma, there were plans to make the temple go public, including naming a committee to look after the welfare of the temple but this did not eventuate.

"It's just us now. I organise prayers every Monday and Tuesday and we have relatives overseas as well who come and pray at the temple every time they come to Fiji.

"We also hold our annual pooja here in May and this is when the whole family gets involved. Before, we used to have the prayer for three days but now we have to hold it in one day because it's getting costlier."

Even though the temple is mainly used by family members, Ms Dewanamma says members of the community are not barred from coming to the temple to pray.

"They come with offerings of prasad and pray at the temple, especially if they are sick. People have faith in God and believe if they pray here, things will be OK for them.

"I follow the same philosophy. God has given me everything I could ever want and you just have to have faith."

Mrs Dewanamma and her husband are sugarcane farmers. She hopes the duty to look after the temple will be continue by her daughter-in-law after her.

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