Anthropologist: Dr Kumar Mahabir

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Indian arrival and survival

By Louis B Homer

Indian Arrival Day is not a celebration about the adverse working and social conditions experienced by early immigrants from India. Rather, it celebrates the overcoming of the difficult conditions they endured during indentureship and the establishment of a firm Indian presence in Trinidad and Tobago, says anthropologist Dr. Kumar Mahabir.

" It is a celebration of progress and achievements over the past 167 years since our ancestors left their homes in India and made Trinidad their new home." says Mahabir chairman of the Indo Caribbean Cultural Association. He said, "The arrival of Indian immigrants into Trinidad was an historic journey that began in 1845 and ended in 1917, during which 143,939 Indian nationals arrived in Trinidad to work on the sugar cane, cacao and rubber estates" .

During the period of indenture the records show that of the total number that arrived 89 per cent were Hindus, 10 per cent Muslims and 0.04 per cent were Christians

"Although often referred to as indentured labourers, not all were labourers in the strict sense of the word," says Mahabir. Many were trained artisans and craftsmen with skills in pottery, jewelry, tailoring, tattoo making and making sweets.

Their arrival in Trinidad was an economic venture, because in the early days of their arrival there was famine and other social problems in their country. The majority came through Calcutta and the united provinces of Bihar and Orissa, while a small number came from Madras.

Mahabir said, "Modern thinkers are of the view that Indian arrival should not be measured in terms of the numbers that arrived during the period of indenture (1845 – 1917), but the introduction into Trinidad of another strand of cultural and religious strain that have helped to strengthen and bond all races in Trinidad and Tobago."

In addition to their skills and crafts Mahabir said, "They also brought plants and herbs of a religious nature, many of which are used today in the preparation of herbal medicine or religious practices."

Some of the plants included the arahoo, ashook, bael, congolata, gainda, katahar, khus khus, madar, nem, peepar and camphor.

The camphor wood is currently used in cremation ceremonies. The leaf of the bael tree has religious significance. It represents the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

Indian arrival brought Dewali, hosay, Ram Leela, Eid-ul-Fitr, Phagwa, and other cultural and religious observances.

They also brought different foods, fruits, musical instruments and above all their Holy books, the Koran and Bhagvad Gita.

The Koran and Bhagvad Gita have played major roles in the judicial system of the country. Followers of the Hindu and Moslem faiths feel more at home when they use these holy books as a medium to "speak the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Their contribution in the development of agriculture went beyond the cultivation of small crops. They had ventured bravely into cane farming in a lucrative way.

Former prime minister Dr Eric Williams in The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago published in 1962 stated, "The Indian cane farmer in Trinidad, cultivating cane on a small plot of land which he had been allowed to buy in exchange for a return passage to India, represented a challenge in Trinidad to the traditional method of production, in the British sugar colonies in the West Indies. To that extent the indentured Indian immigrant, the last victim in the historical sense of the sugar plantation economy, constituted one of the most powerful social forces for the future in the struggle for the establishment of a proper social structure and modern industrial relations."

Historically the inspiration for celebrating Indian Arrival Day was derived from the Indian Centenary Celebrations of May 1945 when a few members of the Indian Revival and Reform Association (IRRA) had approached the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Inc with the idea of hosting this event.

A few members of the IRRA merged with the Hindu Seva Sangh Inc to commemorate the celebration throughout the country. What began as a centenary celebration grew later into a national festival and in 1995 it became a national holiday.

Mahabir said, "After and during the period of indenture many places where Indian families settled were named after villages in India, for example Fyzabad, Coromandel, Piparo, Delhi, Madras, and Golconda."

At St James a vibrant Muslim community emerged between 1858 and 1861 when nine ships carrying nearly 3,000 immigrants from Madras had arrived in Trinidad. Many were from south India where there was a large community of Tamils. At the end of their indenture they settled in Peru Estate, opposite St. James barracks where once per year they celebrated the Firepass festival. While the Firepass festival disappeared in the 1930's, it was replaced with the Hosay celebrations.

Because of the involvement of the entire community in the Hosay festival the participants were allowed to enter Port of Spain by using Marine Square.

By 1910 the whole eastern section of Peru estate was almost settled by Indians. St James has a number of streets that reflect the early settlement of Indians. Calcutta, Delhi, Patna, Benares, Lucknow, Agra, Bengal, Nizam are some of the names.

Mahabir said the latest attempt to widen and deepen the celebration is a visit by members of the association to Tobago where some aspects of the celebration will be conducted.

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