Tag Archives: Trinidad

Celebrating Hindu Culture and Divali in Trinidad

Rambert Village, Trinidad

For flowers that bloom about our feet,
Father, we thank Thee.
For tender grass so fresh, so sweet,
Father, we thank Thee.
For the song of bird and hum of bee,
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee.
For blue of stream and blue of sky,
Father, we thank Thee.

For pleasant shade of branches high,
Father, we thank Thee.
For fragrant air and cooling breeze,
For beauty of the blooming trees,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee.

For this new morning with its light,
Father, we thank Thee.
For rest and shelter of the night,
Father, we thank Thee
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1880

Last month, I travelled to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago for the Hindu Divali festival, which celebrates light over dark, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. Divali in Trinidad is a major event as it has one of the largest Hindu populations outside India concentrated within its 1,864 square miles of coastline.

With the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1838, Trinidad plantation owners sought alternative sources of cheap labor and in 1845 the first Indian laborers arrived on the ship Fathal Razaak.  Hired as indentured servants, they came mainly from the poorer parts of Uttar Pradesh. They undertook the three-month journey to the New World with the understanding that after their five-year work stint was over, they could re-indenture themselves or return to India. The system stayed in place until 1917; today, T &T counts its highest government official as a member of East Indian heritage—Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Like Thanksgiving in the U.S., the Divali festivaI is an occasion for family members to gather for a smorgasbord of favorite foods.  I was privileged to be the guest of Savitri and Winston Ramsingh of Rambert Village for a sumptuous meal of flavors that ranged from fiery to sweet.  As I arrived, Savitri stood in her garden, a striking figure in pale silk amidst the lush greenery, her arm raised in a prayer of thanks. Inside, the extended family laughed as they cooked together in the hot kitchen, everyone’s brows damp with perspiration. The menu included dishes such as dhalpurie roti, buss up shut, curried green mangoes, chick peas curried with potatoes, steamed rice, dasheen bush bhaji, sahinas, biganies and karhie.  The dessert tray proffered delicacies like parsad, barfi, peera, kurma, gulab jamoon and rasgoola.

Several days later, I returned to Rambert Village to attend Shiva Temple, having been invited by the President of the Temple Devotees, Mr. Sinanan and his wife and daughters. Pundit Shivanand Maharaj and two women in their seventies sat with me cross-legged on colorful carpets in front of a low table set with a small bud vase and a flickering candle in a clay pot known as a deya.   On the floor between me and the pundit was a wicker tray overflowing with different kinds of flowers and plants.  He blessed each, patiently explaining to me each step in the ritual and allowing me to participate by giving me a series of petals to offer on the low table.

The pundit then took his seat on an elevated wooden platform facing devotees and gave a sermon on the universal themes of mindfulness and gratitude.  Music began, with a middle-aged man blowing on a conch shell, gazing at me with a twinkle in his eye.  A boy beat the skins of a drum, a young man and women played chimes and the others clapped.  An adorable young girl got up and stood by the pundit’s side, her hands together in prayer and the other worshippers began to stream to the front of the temple to pay respects to their deities.  With smiles of encouragement, I was invited to join them and, once again, given gentle instruction on how to participate.

Another day, I was hosted for lunch by Savitri’s sister Joan and her family, the Maharajs in the town of Rousillac.   Joan and her daughter Reesha brought me outside to their home temple, where they worship daily, under colorful prayer flags flapping in the breeze.  Reesha explained to me the significance of the symbolism in the shrine and demonstrated for me how she approaches her prayers.  I was moved by being entrusted with observing her personal devotion and when I told her that, she said “Everyone—Hindus, Muslims, Christians—need to express their belief in a way that is meaningful for them.  How it is done doesn’t matter—the important thing is simply to pray, give your devotion in your way.”

I was drawn to Trinidad and Tobago because the Caribbean locale seven miles off the coast of Venezuela afforded me the opportunity to experience the Hindu faith in the Western Hemisphere—a prelude to a future trip to the sub-continent.  What I hadn’t expected to discover was T & T’s rich cultural and spiritual diversity.

In a 2000 census, Trinidad’s population was identified as being forty percent East Indian, 37.5 percent African, twenty percent mixed heritage, with the miniscule balance being European or Asian. Religious affiliation was recorded at that time as being 26 percent Roman Catholic, 22.5 percent Hindu, 7.2 percent Baptist and 5.8 percent Muslim, with other faiths representing the balance.

During my ten-day visit, I was welcomed by ambassadors from many of T & T’s diverse and vibrant communities.  My experiences ranged from participating in the joyous Sunday services of the Shouter Baptist congregation of Mount Bethel Cathedral, who worship in heart-felt song and movement, to an AmerIndian smoke ceremony conducted by shaman Adonis Christo at his home on the steep Calvary Hill in Arima.

I took an All Saints Day evening stroll through La Peruse Cemetery in Woodbrook, where families lit candles of remembrance on the graves of loved ones.  The next day, at the Monastery of Mount St. Benedict, I observed monks honor their departed brethren on All Souls Day.

My last day, I visited Jinnah Memorial Mosque and adjoining Trinidad Muslim League, a school that encompasses a kindergarten, primary and secondary school, located in the first capital of Trinidad, St. Joseph.  On the walls of the mosque I read “The Muslims Prayer,” which says in part:

Thy mercy envelops creation and thy light dispels gloom.
Burden me not with what I can’t bear and forgive me when I err.
Let me not squander thy bounty and lose hope in thy loving beneficence.

The words resonate with me — as did those of Pundit Shivanand Maharaj, Reeshma, and all the other Trinis I encountered, whom I now consider friends and fellow pilgrims on the path.

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For more Images of Trinidad – see My Travel Photos.