ONE of the things I love about Fiji is the respect of religion and welcoming nature of not only the native Fijians, but the Hindu, Muslim and Chinese communities as well.
Fiji is one of the few countries in the world where the different religions live side by side in relative peace and harmony.
The recent Nadi floods were a prime example of the whole community coming together to help each other, no matter what your ancestry, religion or background. That's just the Fijian way.
Last weekend I was privileged to be invited to the annual Hindu pooja ceremony at the newly-opened Malolo Sangam Temple just outside of Nadi.
Despite my ignorance of Hinduism, my guides, Dawendra Naidu, Krishneel Singh and their friend Pranil were more than gracious to share their South Indian customs with this foreigner.
The new temple was built at a cost of $200,000 through funds raised by local and overseas members of the Then India Sanmarga Ikya (TISI) Sangam.
Devotees descended on their colourful new temple to take part in the final two days of the Tirnal festival, and despite the hardship endued by the recent floods, thousands of people turned up to take part in this once a year event.
In Singapore and Malaysia the week before, the Hindi community also held their equivalent Thaipusam Festival, with colourful displays of costume, religious dance and extreme displays of kavadi, or burdens.
Devotees there prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting 48 days before Thaipusam.
Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies including observing celibacy and only eat vegetarian food, while continuously praying and thinking of their God.
On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion.
Elaborate semicircular decorated canopies are carried on the shoulders, with displays of mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with stainless steel skewers.
The spear pierced through tongue or cheeks prevents them from speaking and gives great power of endurance while the devotee is constantly reminded of their God.
Other types of kavadi involve hooks stuck into the back to pull carts, with the point of incisions of the hooks varying the level of pain. The greater the pain, the happier the Gods.
The Malolo devotees didn't go to the same extent of elaborate costume as their Asian brethren, but the devotion and dedication to their religion was just as deep, if not more passionate, because of the recent hardship endued by the Nadi community.
Upon arrival to the temple you cannot but marvel at the ancient architecture, colourful designs and religious symbolism.
This was the first time I had attended a Hindi temple, and just as I have been humbled and privileged to attend native Fijian ceremonies, I was mesmerised and absorbed by this ancient Tamil religion.
After taking off my shoes and having my feet blessed with haldi water with the branch of the neem tree, the temple priest, or poojaree, welcomed me inside the Mariamman temple to witness the intricate designs, architecture and paintings that the Sangam members had painstakingly created in just 20 months.
It is an incredible display of ancient design, colour and culture in the middle of the Malolo's sugarcane fields and farms.
For the past 10 days, members of the temple also provided free food for the devotees and others, cooked in huge aluminium pots over open fire of curries, roti and rice.
The men in charge of the kitchen worked day and night to provide meals for hundreds of worshippers and you could see by day nine that they were tired, exhausted but full of pride and dedication.
All throughout the night, crowds of people visited the dining area and sat down to enjoy a selection of spicy curries the men had prepared.
South Indian cuisine is quite distinct from the Northern Indian-influenced curries that dominate Fijian cuisine, with more use of elaborate spices, lots of chilli and coconut, which tend to be found in India's southern provinces.
The night's entertainment started with the Trikutu dance, a celebration of song and prayers depicting ancient stories from religious Hindu books, similar to how Fijian meke tells the stories of myths and legends.
Like a pied piper with Scottish bagpipes, the musician with the shainiya baaja horn-led the devotees from the cleansing ritual at the Malolo River, up to the temple to the waiting crowds.
The addictive, high-pitched sound of this Indian instrument is forever in my head, as devotees prayed and chanted as they circled the flame-lit temple grounds.
Some participants are said to be temporarily possessed by the spirits and displays of screaming men and women being whipped was one of the most incredible sights.
After finishing inside the main temple, the main entertainment was about to begin and keep visitors awake and entertained for another six hours before the finale of firewalking over hot coals.
Like a karaoke of Bollywood performances, the manthri, or master of ceremonies, kept the crowd entertained with re-enactments of Hindu religious stories as thousands watched on drinking yaqona.
Yes, there was plenty of grog. Having endured yaqona sessions across Fiji's islands on my recent Fijian food safari, I was surprised to be confronted with the biggest basin of kava I have ever seen!
Big enough to bath in, this basin held enough grog to supply the thousands in attendance.
For $5, you got a smaller basin and a pyali, the Indian equivalent to a bilo, to sit down and enjoy.
I've got to say the mixes were not the shotgun-strength that I've been accustomed to, but still it did the job and the money raised went back to the temple.
Finally at around 6am, the grand finale was about to begin.
I couldn't believe the number of young children who were still awake and the crowds had in fact increased before sunrise.
The familiar sound of that horn returned as the temple priests raked the hot coals for the final time, at all times carefully watched over by the goddess Mariamman.
As the feet of worshippers were covered in haldi to purify the body, only those devotees who had practised the ritual braved the hot coals to cross over them successfully three times.
Like the Fijian Bega firewalkers, the temple devotees passed over with ease, and were obviously very happy that their God was pleased with their recent sacrifices ù and that they didn't burn their feet.
In celebration of the festival, I thought I'd share a South Indian curry recipe from Madurai, the third largest city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and is famous for its ancient temples and is one of India's most prominent places of Hindu pilgrimage.
The curries from this region are an aromatic combination of different spices, chilli and use coconut and nuts to create texture and its distinctive nutty flavour.
While most Hindus and Muslims have never travelled to or have a connection with India, their motherland's religion, traditions and spicy cuisine are well and truly alive in Fiji for everyone to enjoy.