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As a historian and erstwhile anthropologist it
never ceases to amaze me at how religious and cul-
tural tolerance manifests itself in T&T.
Almost every schoolchild can recite a basic under-
standing of the annual Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali.
They know the elements of the triumph of light
over darkness, good over evil, bits of the sacred
Ramayana and the welcoming of the goddess Lakshmi
into the home to ensure a year of prosperity for the
There are few communities here where in the
Hindu calendar month of Kartik (although the earlier
month of Ashvin sometimes encompasses the festival)
where the firefly lights of tiny clay deyas do not shine
forth on the night of the festival, upholding ancient
traditions deeply rooted in our ancestry.
To fully understand the portent of Divali (Deepaavali
as the celebration is known in India) one must take
a brief look at the roots of Hinduism in T&T.
In 1845 a group of indentured immigrants arrived
from India aboard the Fatel Razack as the first of
thousands who would flock hither to found a new
society in an alien land.
With them to the west came the ancient ways of
their motherland and Hinduism had arrived.
Initially there was no provision for any cultural or
religious freedom since the colonial authorities merely
envisioned the presence of the Indians as an easily-
replenished source of labour bound to fixed contracts.
It was only when the eminent suitability of these
people for sugar estate work became apparent then
financial and land incentives were offered between
1860 and 1880 which resulted in the formation of
a permanent peasant class.
It is with this firm establishment that itinerant
babajis or pundits began to appear in the villages of
their people alongside quaint mandirs with mud walls
and carat-thatched roofs.
A few of these holy men were real Brahmins but
these were in the minority with a large number merely
being elevated to piety by having a considerable
knowledge of the epics of the Ramayana and Mahab-
Although most of the indentured immigrants were
from agrarian classes from rural stock and formerly
bound by the fetters of the caste system, it was noted
in 1887 by JH Collens (in a rather myopic account)
that a widespread knowledge of the epics was apparent
and this of course was the local origin of the Ramayana
readings and Ramleela plays which have characterised
Indo-Trinidadian Hinduism ever since: "It must be
acknowledged that the Puranas are a mass of con-
tradiction, extravagance, and idolatry, though couched
in highly poetical language.
It is, nevertheless, astonishing how familiar the
Trinidadian coolies are with them; even amongst the
humble labourers who till our fields there is a con-
siderable knowledge of them, and you may often in
the evening, work being done, see and hear a group
of coolies crouching down in a semicircle, chanting
whole stanzas of the epic poems, Ramayan etc.
In the preface of the Ramayan it is stated that he
who constantly hears and sings this poem will obtain
the highest bliss hereafter, and become as one of the
It is this spiritual awakening which inevitably led
to the introduction of Divali and other Hindu festivals
In the next instalment of this series, we will look
at how deyas punctuated the darkness in rural Trinidad
as Divali emerged as a national phenomenon.
Hinduism comes to the
West, bringing Divali along
Three babas or pundits in
Trinidad circa 1894. The
permanent settlement of
immigrants paved the way
for a cultural and religious
expansion of their identities
hitherto suppressed by the
On November 2, thousands of Trinidadians of the Hindu faith will be
celebrating Divali, or the Festival of Lights. It is a tradition which
has been handed down by their ancestors who arrived here
decades ago to work on the sugar estates. Today, the Guardian starts a
four-part series in recognition of the event and the contribution of
members of the Hindu faith to T&T society.
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