INVOKING BLESSINGS: Swami Naresh Ramroop officiates at the puja (rituals).

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Worship of Mother Earth

Devotees gather at volcano site

By Ariti Jankie

A unique spiritual tourism destination is in the making at the south-western district of Cedros.

Sacred and surrounded by nature, the venue attracted more than 25 community groups in a day of prayer held this year on Easter Sunday.

Balki, or Volcano Puja, is a ritual worship ceremony that has been in existence for over 120 years. It was started by poor farmers who performed ritual worship to Mother Earth to stop the volcano from erupting.

BalkiPuja evokes Mother Earth and seeks her blessings to prevent disasters and the possible disruption of life in the small agricultural village.

Over the past few weeks the finishing touches were made to a shrine adjacent to a bubbling mud pond that is the mouth of the volcano.

Located at Columbus Estate, two miles into the forested region, the volcano is one of at least 20 known mud volcanoes in South Trinidad, including one in the sea at Mayaro.

Tents were erected to accommodate 12 altars. Nine mandirs of the Cedros district and many other groups took part in the day's activities.

Filled with passengers, maxi taxis travelled the narrow lanes into the interior past Manmohansingh Park up hills and unto valleys with thick vegetation on both sides. The sound of the tassa drums herald the beginning of the day's worship as the drummers led the way down the hill to the puja site. Five women carried murtis (images of a divinity) upon their heads and followed the drummers in a procession to the puja ground.

Men, women and children dressed in bright, festive, rainbow colours carried flowers, fruits, grains water, milk and sweets for offerings while others began preparing food and pundits took their places at the altars to begin the rituals.

RookminSukbir has been performing the puja since the age of seven. She is 69.

She said the puja started more than 120 years ago and both her father and grandfather took part in the worship.

"The people of this area have witnessed miracles as a result of this puja," she said in an interview at the puja ground.

She said one woman gave birth to eight boys and wanted a girl child.

"She performed Balki puja and a girl child was born. Other women who were childless received the blessing and gave birth and many were cured of illnesses by using the mud from the volcano," she said.

Thirbhawan Seegobin, former president of the Sanatan Dharma MahaSabha and founder/president of the Hindu Festivals Society, said that Hindus perform the puja for many reasons.

"They pray for the success of their children in examinations, economic prosperity, good health, the removal of diseases and illnesses and astrological disorders," he said.

He said that Hindus were a ritual-oriented people and women from nine villages in the area came together to perform the annual puja.

"In other districts, women perform a bheak (begging) ceremony and use the offerings in the puja," he said, adding that the worship is known as Kali Mai puja.

He said that Balki puja is a combination of Kali Mai and Dharti Mata (Mother Earth) worship.

Seegobin, a building contractor, has been working with southern groups over the past few years. He said permission was given for the use of three acres of land to the society for the purpose of creating the Balki Devi shrine. The society spent more than $300,000 to develop the roadway and park and is planning to have the area further developed as a spiritual tourism site for local as well as foreign pilgrims.

Among the groups present was the Santa Rosa Karena Community, the lone Amerindian group who also took part in the day's rituals. They set up an altar in the circle of bedis (Hindu altars). A spokesman for the group said more people should get involved in a day of worship to the earth.

"In the very least, an awareness of the environment would be promoted," he said.

He said the cultures of the nation provided a rich heritage and those who looked would find many similarities in the different races and religions.

As the conch shell blew and cymbals chimed to the rhythm of the ancient Vedic chants, bamboo poles were planted and the congregation assembled at the mouth of the volcano to make offerings and prayer for peace and calm. A cultural programme took place alongside the puja and gave several groups the opportunity to sing sacred songs and play music.

Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Cooperation, Madan Mohan Sharma, said that he was deeply impressed by the reverence of the people.

"The type of devotion and the approach to worship is rare and I felt privileged to take part in the puja," he said.

He placed the murti of "Durga riding the lion" upon his head and joined four others who carried the murtis along with the congregation in the performance of "pradakshina" (circling the volcano). A jhandi (a bamboo pole with a flag) was planted at the mouth of the volcano and the murtis immersed to complete the prayer.

Prasad (a sweet) and lunch were distributed and mandir groups were given the opportunity to socialise. A foot track led to the sea and many took the chance to bathe.

Local writer Ashram Maharaj has been documenting the puja over the years and said that more people were recognising the need for prayer in light of recent global tragedies.

He said that despite tremendous development in science and technology, man remained helpless against natural disasters and in puja recognised a superior force.

A Balki Devi Mandir Committee has been formed with Deo Cadill as president.

He said that religious trees would be planted and the area further developed as a sacred resort for anyone who wished to visit.

"This project means a lot to the people of Cedros. We have been a forgotten people for too long and we will continue to seek assistance from government to further enhance the area," he said adding that so far developmental work at the site has been funded by the efforts of the HFS.

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