In This Article Diaspora in Trinidad

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Indenture
  • Colonial Accounts
  • The Politics of Diaspora Identities
  • Caste and Purity
  • Ritual Specialists
  • Mortuary Ritual
  • Temples
  • Rāmlīlā
  • Music
  • Organized Alternatives to “Orthodoxy”
  • Shakti Puja
  • Hosay
  • Ethno-Racial Identity Politics and Ritual Exchange

Hinduism Diaspora in Trinidad
by
Alexander Rocklin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0177

Introduction

Between 1838, after the end of slavery, and 1920, over half a million Indians were transported by the British to the Caribbean, including to British, French, and Dutch West Indian colonies, and signed on as indentured laborers. From 1845 to 1917, roughly 144,000 of those arrived in the British colony of Trinidad. Laborers were recruited from various parts of colonial India (many coming from the northeast), so that those who arrived reflected the diversity of communities and practices in the subcontinent. This gradually led to the generalization and consolidation of practices, the eliding of differences, and the impracticability and drastic transformation of caste hierarchies and identities. Hinduism was not something transported whole cloth from India to Trinidad. Initially, Indian Trinidadians had to make new lives for themselves within the constraints of the majority Catholic Afro-Trinidadian colony under the rule of British Anglican and French Catholic colonial officials and plantation owners. They did so using whatever cultural forms were available. These included authoritative colonial categories, grassroots ritual and healing traditions (such as popular Catholic practice and “obeah,” identified as Afro-Caribbean healing and spirit working), and fragments of rituals, myths, and sectarian identities brought in peoples’ memories from India. In the 19th and early 20th century, the practices of people identified as Hindu (or at least those practices most obvious to colonial observers from whom we have accounts) were not those typically associated with Hinduism today. They involved, for instance, the formation of temporary ritual communities united in the commemorating and celebrating of the life and martyrdom of Imam Husayn during Hosay (or Muharram), in making offerings to a dark skinned, southern Trinidadian Virgin Mary identified as a goddess, or in walking on hot coals as part of devotion to fierce goddesses and their consorts for Firepass. Such groups often included practitioners who today would be identified as not only Hindu, but also Muslim and Christian, and people of both Indian and (at times also, but to a lesser extent) African descent. At the same time, in the late 19th century, as Indians’ labor contracts ended and they began to form communities off plantations, they elaborated new cultural forms from the plantation and drew on traditions brought from South Asia and recreated in Trinidad, including Phagwa, Rāmlīlā, and Kālī devotion, among others. By the 1920s and early 1930s, Hindu-identified Indian Trinidadian middle-class groups began the highly contentious work of formulating Hinduism as a discrete entity on the model of a “world religion.” They did so by “purifying” Hindu practice in the face of the reformist missionary critiques levelled by the Arya Samaj on the island, adapting Christianity as a model for “orthodox” Hindu social organization. This was authoritatively solidified in the early 1950s with the creation of the island-wide Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha founded by Bhadase Sagan Maraj. From the mid-20th into the 21st century, Trinidadians have continued to transform and contest Hindu identities and Hinduism in postcolonial Trinidad and Tobago. Major trends shaping these transformations and contestations have included the rise of Creole and composite Trinidadian nationalisms leading to the end of British rule in 1962, new wealth for ritual elaboration and innovation from the oil boom in the 1970s, the rise of new forms of Kālī worship and Sai Baba devotion in the 1970s and 1980s, and political changes through the rise to power and changing fortunes of an Indian Trinidadian-identified political party in the 1990s and early 2000s.

General Overviews

General overviews specifically on Hinduism in Trinidad are hard to find. Samaroo 2004 and Haraksingh 1987 are articles that both offer short and accessible outlines. Haraksingh 1987 is useful because it argues against stereotyped images of “the Hindu” as essentially spiritual and unchanging, and Samaroo 2004 provides a concise and comprehensive historical mapping of Hindu identified groups on the Island. Haraksingh 1998 gives a view from the ground with an eye toward the role of religion in Indians’ lives both during and after indenture. La Guerre 1974, an edited volume, presents a collection of essays on a range of topics related to the sociohistorical context of Indians in Trinidad, including religion. Broad discussions and comparative possibilities can also be found in works on Indians in the Caribbean diaspora. Younger 2010 provides comparative breadth, giving a general overview of the historical and contemporary context of Hinduism in Trinidad in a chapter, but putting it alongside similar work on Hindu diasporic communities around the globe. Younger’s chapter on Trinidad would be good for undergraduate students. Jayawardena 1966, van der Burg and van der Veer 1986, and Vingadassamy-Engel 1992 are short studies of Hinduism in Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana, respectively. Jayawardena gives background on religion in India and the context of indenture, and is concerned particularly with exploring the role of religion in the creation of social solidarity. Van der Burg and van der Veer examine not only the formation of Surinamese Hinduism, but also its further transformations in the double diaspora of the Netherlands. Vingadassamy-Engel presents a broader perspective of Indians in the Francophone Caribbean as well as snapshots of Hindu life in French Guiana.

  • Haraksingh, Kusha. “The Hindu Experience in Trinidad.” In Indians in the Caribbean. Edited by I. J. Bahadur Singh, 167–184. New Delhi: Sterling, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Haraksingh calls for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of Hinduism in Trinidad that moves away from privileging colonial and elite Hindu perspectives. The work traces out the history of Hindu movements, from village organization in the 1870s to Sai Baba devotion in the 1970s, up through to the 1980s.

  • Haraksingh, Kusha. “Culture, Religion, and Resistance among Indians in the Caribbean.” In Indian Labour Immigration. Edited by U. Bissoondoyal and S. Servansing, 223–237. Moka, Mauritius: Mahatma Gandhi Institute, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of systems of plantation regulation and Indian resistance, within which Haraksingh includes cultural retentions and adaptations during and after indenture. Focuses particularly on the transformation and development of Hindu traditions in Trinidad (and Guyana and, to a lesser extent, Surinam) up to the early 1980s.

  • Jayawardena, Chandra. “Religious Belief and Social Change: Aspects of the Development of Hinduism in British Guiana.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 8.2 (January 1966): 211–240.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417500004011E-mail Citation »

    Based on ethnographic work on plantations in Berbice, British Guiana, in the late 1950s. Jayawardena gives an overview of religion in northeastern India, the social context of British Guiana and life on plantations, and the pressures of Christian conversion, and also examines the emergence of a common “Sanatan Dharm” for Guianese Indians and the role of reform movements in spurring that process.

  • La Guerre, John Gaffar, ed. Calcutta to Caroni: The East Indians of Trinidad. Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Short collection of essays by Trinidadian scholars that provides historical background of indenture and Indian Trinidadians’ location in the larger society; analysis of Indian cultural “heritage” in Trinidad, including religion and caste; and Afro- and Indo-Trinidadian solidarities, among others.

  • Samaroo, Brinsley. “Reconstructing the Identity: Hindu Organization in Trinidad during their First Century.” In The Construction of an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. Edited by Brinsley Samaroo and Ann Marie Bissessar, 44–73. St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Samaroo provides an overview of the history of Hindu movements from the late 19th century, including the Kabir Panth, Arya Samaj, Kālī Mai, and also Sikhism. He also examines the history of the establishment of temples and reform and education societies, and the rise of formal Sanatanist organizations.

  • van der Burg, Cors, and Peter van der Veer. “Pandits, Power and Profit: Religious Organization and the Construction of Identity among Surinamese Hindus.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 9.4 (October 1986): 514–528.

    E-mail Citation »

    Lays out an overview of the history of Surinamese Hinduism and Hindu identity. Discusses changes in caste hierarchy and identity, the creation of a Brahminized Surinamese Hinduism, and the rise of the Arya Samaj and Sanatanist counterreaction in Surinam. Also analyses the reorganization, conflict, and change in Hindu and Hindustani ethnic identities in the 1970s with migration to the Netherlands.

  • Vingadassamy-Engel, Lotus. “The Hindu Diaspora in the French West Indies.” India International Centre Quarterly 19.3 (1992): 6–26.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written in an accessible and personalized narrative style, the piece provides an overview of the history of indenture to the French Caribbean, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana. It then describes life in French Guiana, including the importance of diaspora identities and the effects of French Catholic hegemony. Also includes descriptions of a goddess puja and various rites of passage.

  • Younger, Paul. New Homelands: Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji, and East Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Younger takes a comparative look at the discourse, practice, and social formation of Hindu communities across the indentured labor diaspora, situating Trinidadian Hinduism in this larger context. He analyzes relatively recent attempts to construct Hindu (and Indian) ethnic identities in Trinidad in relation to emerging ethno-racial politics on the island.

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