Celebration of Indian-ness in Jamaica
Let's take a trip, to a land far away in the east where mysticism, hues, romance, aromas and paradoxes run on steroids India, the mere mention of this land transcends one's mind, body and soul into mythical spheres.
In the Caribbean, India and Indian-ness are an integral part of the region's social and cultural fabric, hints of which are potent and fragrant as the spices of the land are perhaps not visible on the surface but deeply embedded in the way of life.
Turning the clocks back to a sunny afternoon of May 10, 1845 S.S. Blundell Hunter anchored in Old Harbour Bay aboard were 200 men, 28 women and 33 children making journey from India it is recorded that first Indian to set foot on Jamaican soil was a man named Parmeshwar (meaning Supreme Being or God).
These were the first Indian immigrants to Jamaica. The Indian presence in Jamaica would grow with recruitment for another 70 years, as some 36,400 immigrants made the four-month long journey to this island.
Differing in language, religion and culture, they were brought into an entirely new environment at once strongly Christian and African, where many of their traditions were seen as strange and even unholy.
Yet, they have managed to maintain much of their culture, while leaving their mark on Jamaican foods, music, religion and festivals, making a significant contribution to Jamaica's historical development and cultural heritage.
East Indians in Jamaica
After Emancipation, plantation owners began to import European, African, and Asian indentured workers in an effort to stave off the collapse of the sugar industry. By 1860 only Asians were being recruited to the West Indies. Most of the 528,570 Indian immigrants arriving into the Caribbean went to the colonies of Guyana and Trinidad.
Jamaica received only seven per cent this number.
Most emigrants came from the north-eastern and central regions of India Agra, Bihar and Oudh as well as Bengal and from Nepal, nestled in the Himalayas.
After 1900 an increasing number came from the Residency of Madras (south of India) and Punjab, in the north.
These new labourers went to work mainly on the large sugar estates, on the plains of Clarendon and Westmoreland, and later on the prime banana cultivations of Saint Mary.
Their contracts of indentureship were initially for a period of one year, but were increased to three and then five years after 1860.
Arranged mainly in port cities of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai), these contracts were to terminate on payment and included return passage. However, only about 38 per cent or 12,100, were returned. Most of the contracts were breached by the employers, especially in regard to their return passage. The Indian indentured workers were paid off and given land in lieu of passage. Unable to afford their return, many were forced to remain, while others chose to settle and make a life here. They turned to cultivating vegetables and rice, fishing and moved into trades as silver and goldsmiths and merchants.
Their relatively low number and wide distribution prevented the development of significant concentrations.
Also, the disproportionately high number of males to females that arrived, caused them intermarry, making it difficult to hold on to their customs.
The labour scheme came to an end in 1917 as a result of the prohibitive costs during World War I. The last recruits came on the S.S. Dewa in June 1916. They completed their indenture in 1921 and in 1929, at the end of their contract, were free to settle.
Hosei and the Indian Exchange
Hosei is the celebration that today epitomises Indo-Jamaican heritage. Although initially an all-Indian affair, African-Creole members of the community were soon included and the Hosei festival provided a space for creative exchange. Today, the inclusion of Africans has become an integral part of the Jamaican performance of Hosei. This festival characterises a relationship of mutual learning and acceptance where Indo-Jamaican communities converge and share with their Afro-Jamaican compatriots.
At the beginning of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic year, Shia Muslims commemorate the massacre of "Husayn" (also spelt "Hussein", the grandson of Muhammad) who was assassinated by Yazid in Karbala.
This martyrdom is commemorated in the festival. (Hosei was derived from "Hasan!, Hosei!", shouted by celebrants). They were grandsons and according to Shia Muslims, the chosen heirs of the Prophet Mohammed. When Islam was introduced into northern India in the 15th Century, Moharram was also commemorated by Hindus. By the time of Indian indentureship the celebration had taken on a typically Indian form with a tazia (float) procession and other forms of pageantry.
Only one in ten Indians that came to Jamaica was Muslim. Nonetheless, by the 1860s, the Tazia and the Hosei carnival began to be seen around the island. As these floats made their way throughout their communities, Indians threw rice and jewellery, and fanned and burnt incense to usher them on the annual pilgrimage to the nearest seashore or river. At dusk the Tazia, a symbol of faith and hope was set adrift and disappeared beneath the waters.
Spiritual Beliefs and Practices
The spiritual beliefs of Indian indentured labourers were grounded in ancient religious customs and traditions. These beliefs were nurtured through myths, songs as well as shared languages.
While Hinduism was the religion of the majority, there were also Muslims, and an even smaller number of Christians, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists. From their villages they came with these religions along with shared traditions. They brought with them practices such as pujas (prayer rituals), samskars (initiations), and celebrations like Ram Naumi, Diwali, Kartik Purnima and Moharam (Hosei).
Their Jamaican experience, however, was to result in creolised traditions. Few Pundits (Hindu priests) and Malvis (or Maulwi, Muslim priests) were chosen to come, which affected the availability of religious instruction as well as the performance of rituals.
This would have a negative impact on the transfer of these traditions in their original form to younger generations. Still, today many of these are practised among the indentured Indian community. Later arrivals of Indians to Jamaica would also ensure the survival of their beliefs.
But this creolisation process was not one way, and Indians would also affect a wider Jamaican world view. The common belief of both Indo- and Afro-Jamaicans that Humans dwelled among a community of divine and ancestral spirits provided a suitable environment for sharing. Additionally, working, and often living, in proximity and under similarly difficult conditions would also facilitate crossover.
While some Indians came as Christians, those who were not, were continually forced by Missionaries to conform to Christianity and the European way of life. As it became obvious that accepting this way of life was a means for them to improve their condition, many traditional customs became submerged, surfacing only on special occasions and within their communities
It was sugar that initially led the Indians to the West Indies. However, coming from one of the longest enduring civilisations, they brought with them centuries old cultural practices, technologies, like rice cultivation, as well as new products such as curry powder, all unfamiliar to Jamaica.
They came with their own farming methods and made use of land provided for them to grow their own foods and cultivate surpluses that they sold or bartered at the local markets. Some of them were skilled jewellers who practised their trade in their free time. Brass, silver and gold ornaments were indispensable to their lifestyle. They made ornaments such as guard- rings to protect against evil and other pieces of jewellery, especially elaborate wedding jewellery for brides.
Their weddings-colourful and glittering ceremonies, the flavours of their cuisine with spices like curry (a mix of spices) or masala (which means spice in Hindi) made with utensils such as the carahee (similar to a wok, with round metal handles) as well as their music, dance and traditional dress were all part of a lifestyle that was new to Jamaica. Also new to wider Jamaica were their social practices among them, arranged marriages. Most of these cultural practices were kept alive in their homes and immediate communities.
East Indians are the largest ethnic minority in Jamaica.
It has been noted that the religious sentiments of the Indians were not considered by the recruiting authorities, because, the majority of these immigrants were Hindus and Muslims, yet priests were never recruited to satisfy the religious needs of the Indians. The priests who arrived came as indentured labourers and practised their priesthood as a part-time profession.
At the end of the indentureship contract, many Indians reverted to their ancestral occupations; some became farmers or fishermen, while others returned to the trades barber, goldsmith and ironsmith. Some became money lenders.
The traditional Indian practise of naming the boys after gods and heroes and the girls after goddesses, rivers, flowers, seasons, moods, or words of great significance have now been completely abandoned. Almost every Indian regardless of his or her religion has anglicised first and second names; the surnames too have been changed except for names such as Maragh (Maharaj or Emperor) and Singh (from the root word Lion).
The Indians introduced several plants and trees in Jamaica, the most common being betel leaves, betel nut, coolie plum, mango, jackfruit, and tamarind. The food habits of Indians have a distinctly Indian flavour and taste.
A typical East Indian dinner consists of curried goat, roti, pulses usually cooked with mangoes, curried potato, eggplant, bitter gourd and okra.
Information courtesy of National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica