Indian Indentureship: Religion

By Ravi Dev

Over the course of Indian Indentureship (1838 to 1917), the religious practices of the 239,000 immigrants almost perfectly mirrored those of the areas from where they were recruited – primarily North India (88% Hindus and 12% Muslims) and the coastal areas outside the city of Madras/Chennai – almost all worshippers of Mariamman. In the first shipment of 396 from the Whitby and Hesperus, there were 94 persons (21%) who can be identified as Muslims by their names – while the others were Hindus. Also, there was a sprinkling of Christian immigrants later. According to the Gandhi Youth Organization, the first two persons who stepped off the Whitby at Highbury on the East Bank of Berbice were “Ram and Khan”. For this reason, when they started commemorating “Indian Arrival Day” in the 1960s, they dubbed it “Ramakhan Day”.

Guyana mandir with a 19th century Shivala

A Royal Commission of 1870 reported seeing a mandir up the Demerara River, and one at Wakenaam, but there are claims that the first Hindu immigrants established simple mandirs with lingas of Lord Shiva at Londsdale, EBB and at Waterloo at WCB around 1846. Similarly, it is claimed that the first Islamic masjid was built in 1869 near the Atlantic shore at Philadelphia, EBE. Even though the colonial administration supported the Christian churches financially and otherwise, the plantation managers did not prevent the Indian Indentureds from practising their religions on the plantations. From the late 19th century, and increasingly after the abolition of indentureship, they even facilitated the construction of mandirs and masjids in the logies’ area. It was not that they accepted the heathen practices, but that they wanted to keep the time-expired immigrants as workers in the fields. For, to the Indian immigrants, religion was central to their lives.
During the 19th century, the two largest festivals celebrated by the immigrants were Phagwah and Muharram – the latter a Shite commemoration of the Kattle of Karbala. Its exuberance – in which Hindus and Creoles joined in the beating of Tazia drums and the parade of Tazias – encouraged rum drinking and fights. After indentureship, Muslims drew the line on the revelry, and Muhorram died out by the 1950s, even as the tadja drums were retained by Hindus.

Tazia at Muhorram

Christian missionaries strove strenuously to convert the immigrants to Christianity, and because all the schools were church-run, the Indians kept their children away. As late as the 1950s, to become a teacher, Indians had to convert to Christianity.
One interesting development was the gradual loss of caste among Hindus, even though westerners had insisted that this demarcation was inherent in the religion. Caste started breaking down in the depots and ships when all had to eat together, and later in the plantations when, because of the shortage of women, the “higher castes” had no choice but to marry “lower castes”. Their form of worship also changed when everyone could make offerings directly to the Murtis. The immigrants from Madras also continued their worship of the village deity Mariemmen as a form of Kali.