Durban ties

Durban ties

Durban’s Indian community, one of the largest societies outside the country, is home away from home

I’m transported back to India — the air is redolent with the smell of masala blends, cinnamon and turmeric seguing with the fragrance of burning incense. I can hear the strains of devotional Hindi bhajans in the background. What unfolds is also an amalgamation of cultures and traditions of two continents… there are shops that sell intricate Zulu bead work and wooden masks alongside saris and other Indian fabrics.

I am at the Victoria Street Market (formerly the Indian Market), in balmy Durban, South Africa’s bustling port town lined with palm trees.

The home of one of the most well-known African tribes, the Zulus, Durban has one of the largest Indian communities outside India, and is often called the largest Indian city outside India.

The city started off as a British trading post in 1824, after negotiation with the powerful Zulus. Sugar, the white gold of this region, was the reason indentured workers from India were shipped here by the British, to work on the plantations. Durban is today South Africa’s third largest city, and quite often overlooked in favour of its glamorous cousin, Cape Town.


History whispers from every corner of the city. I drive past Art Deco buildings in pastel colours, with their geometric lines and motifs; my favourite is an eight-storied apartment on Currie Road, which was built in 1937, and the neo-Gothic Durban City Hall, a copy of the Belfast City Hall. At the Post office building, there is a plaque celebrating a speech made on the steps by Winston Churchill, after his escape from a Boer POW camp in 1900.

Durban is connected in many ways to India. Since the 1860s, the city has welcomed Indian businessmen, workers and their families. In 1861, Bauboo Naidoo set up the first Indian shop on Fleet Street.

It was here that in 1893, Mahatma Gandhi landed and built a house in the Phoenix Settlement, published the newspaper Indian Opinion and fought a case for a Muslim business leader, which became the launchpad for his political activism. Today, there are more than 40 Hindu temples in the city including the Temple of Understanding built by the devotees from the Hare Krishna faith, with glass, mirrors and panels with pictures from the life of Lord Krishna.

I meet Buddy Madari, at his popular spice shop Madari & Sons, at the Victoria Street Market lined with fiery and pungent spices from cumin and cinnamon to garam masala. His grandfather migrated from India in 1943.

“It all started with the Indian workers who came here to work on the sugarcane plantations and later got small plots and settled here and became industrial workers, clerks, railway workers or court interpreters. The shrewd Gujarati community saw a business proposition here and started selling Indian spices and other things needed by the Indian community,” he says. I ask him if it’s only the Indians who buy spices from his shop. “No,” he says with a smile. “The average black South African buys potatoes, and with a packet of our spices makes an inexpensive, tangy curry in no time!”

I meet Sukshma, a lady from South India, at her shop selling religious paraphernalia and spices. Sai bhajans play in the background and incense smoke shrouds a statue of Lord Ganesha. “I am the fifth generation here,” she explains. “There is a large Indian community here and even a Sai Bhajan group that meets every week.” It used to be a 100% Indian market, but now only 5% of the shops are run by Indians,” she exclaims.

Outside, I walk along the crowded street, with hawkers peddling mounds of vegetables, phone covers, plastic products; the gilded domes of Jama Masjid loom ahead — one of the largest mosques in the Southern Hemisphere.

Opposite that is the Zulu Muti or traditional medicine market where the sangomas or healers buy their needs. There is a bewildering array of barks, herbs and animal skins on display.

On Florida Road, with its elegant villas and lacework balconies, I have a special meal at the House of Curries. My guide Shiney has brought me here to try a special Indian dish that’s not available in India… Bunny chow, the signature dish of Durban, is a hollowed-out chunk of white bread filled with spicy mutton, chicken or bean curry.

Its origins are shrouded in myth and legend. One explanation is that the Indian workers on the plantations wanted to carry their food to work, and they devised this snack, which was sold by local banias (traders). The bread acted like an edible container with a lid to transport their food to the sugarcane plantations. I tuck into the fiery vegetable curry served with grated carrot, chilles and raw onions. I scoop out the curry with a piece of white bread and find it addictive.

Cricket craze

We drive out an hour from the city to Pietermaritzburg, a small town famous for its cricket stadium, to find yet another important Indian connection. It was at the station here that in 1893, a 23-year-old Indian barrister was thrown off a train for travelling in a Whites-Only coach, and it sparked off the legendary non-violent passive resistance called Satyagraha.

Today, a double-sided bust of Mahatma Gandhi stands tall at the entrance to the platform, and the waiting room where he spent a cold night has been converted into a small museum. I stand on the empty platform, musing on the intricate connection between two countries on two ends of the Indian Ocean.