Navaratri in Greater India

As we pay reverence to Ma Durga, we should be happy that beyond ‘Little India’, Mauritius is rather part of the Greater India of the Global Indian Diaspora, which pitches us to a higher level of engagement in the evolving global context

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Probably it was Mrs Indira Gandhi who first used the term ‘Little India’ for Mauritius when she came here on a visit in 1971, when she also ‘officialised’ what is today Aapravasi Ghat as the original landing place of Indian Indenture. Widely travelled, she was no doubt impressed on being welcomed by a Prime Minister of Indian origin, meeting so many officials equally of Indian origin, of course along with others of African, European, Chinese and mixed origins. Over and above this, she saw Indian looking people as she went around, and ladies in Indian wear, and must also have tasted local Indian food. These features are still alive, if anything Indian food has expanded in variety and tipuri, sept carris, gateaux piments, and dalpuris (puris, seven curries, chilly cake or vada, and rotis containing ground dal) are popular national dishes which are healthy too, certainly healthier than the NCD-genic fast foods. (NCD = non-communicable diseases)

However, with developments that have been taking place since her visit, it is probably more appropriate to now use the term Greater India. This is because of the concept of global diaspora which has surfaced in the past few decades. The success of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ – in book and cinematic forms – in the 1970s not only triggered serious studies in the slavery phenomenon, it also generated a wider interest among populations at large in their roots, launching a search for them in particular by people who had been displaced by colonization. UNESCO has also supported these endeavours through specific heritage and cultural preservation projects.

Among such peoples there are also Indians and Chinese, and it is common nowadays to hear about the Global Chinese Diaspora and the Global Indian Diaspora. The traditional method of search for ancestry has been through genealogy, looking for and using family and official records in the countries of settlement and of origin, as well as actually going to the identified or presumed places and conducting enquiries there among descendants if any. Some Chinese friends of mine have done so, going for example to Moyen (or Moyan) where many of them originated. A number of Indian ones too have gone to UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to look for their ancestors. Rishi Jheengun, of Canton Nancy Pamplemousses met up with his relatives in the village Chandapur in Uttar Pradesh, and they did a puja in the 100-year old house that had belonged to his dada’s father (paternal great-grandfather) and was still standing. He has written a book about his quest, ‘Untangling the knot’. 

The advent of genetic studies, especially advances in testing for DNA – the price of which has come down considerably – has brought further refinement to the search for ancestry. Thus, it would appear that many people are discovering that they have Indian forebears, and might be interested in staking a claim to seek a passport that applies to this category. In addition, they have the possibility of actually going to look for which areas or villages their ancestors were from. This may be an exciting prospect, for one never knows where it might lead.

Take the case of Sylvio B who was from Beau Bassin. Barely out of his teens, he somehow found that he had South Indian ancestry. That was about 20 years ago when genomic studies were not yet as available as they are now. He followed the traditional genealogical route. Eventually he not only discovered his roots, but immersed himself so deeply that he became a disciple of Pujya Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. He followed the course to become a Brahmachari, and was given the name Brahmachari Yogesh. He settled in Reunion Island, where he is associated with the ashram of Swami Advaitananda (who is himself a Reunionais) also of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam lineage, and is particularly interested in transmitting the Vedic Vidya to children. He has written books adapted to their age groups and levels, which he presented at a satsang that he held at the Institute of Vedanta in Reduit which he visited when it was situated there several years ago.

People of Indian origin (PIO) outside of India are now to be found in all continents, numbering an estimated 30 million, where they have taken and practise their diverse cultures, which has also been soaked up by the local populations in many instances. It is thus quite appropriate to speak of Greater India, and the setting up of GOPIO or Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin is an acknowledgement of this fact. The Indian Government has come into the picture with the annual event known as PravasiBharatiya Divas, which brings together people of the Global Indian Diaspora on a common platform to discuss issues pertaining to them, and where the prominent ones who have made significant contributions in the Diaspora are given due recognition.

One of the ways in which Indian Culture is kept alive is through the celebration of the various utsavas or festivals in the Indian calendar, and currently it is Navaratri which is being observed by the Global Indian Diaspora, including locally too. It is in praise of Ma Durga, also known as Ma Kali. In the preface to her book ‘Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar’, the American author Elizabeth U Harding, who is a devotee of Ma Kali, writes, ‘Hindus consider the mother as supreme… I offer this book at the feet of Ma Kali with reverence…’

Durga Puja reminds us of the ‘centrality of the Universal Mother in our existence. Belief in a Mother Goddess can be found in almost all races and religions in the ancient times, the Semitic, Hellenic, Nordic and Teutonic alike, but what singles out India has been the continued history of the cult from the hoary past till now.’ As Harding observes: ‘Considering the first being a child relates to is its nurturing mother, and considering that primitive people who had no scientific knowledge must have watched the miracle of birth with wonder and awe, it comes as no surprise that our remote ancestors greatly revered the mother. When ancient people began to conceive of a higher supernatural being that would nourish and protect them from evil, they naturally conceived it in the image of the mother.’

But as we evolved, she continues, ‘we began to understand that there cannot be any creation unless there is the union of two, the male and the female. Extending human analogy to the creation of the universe as a whole, we came to believe in a Primordial Father and a Primordial Mother which formed the first pair. All the pairs in the universe are said to be replicas of this first pair.’

As we pay reverence to the Universal Mother represented by Ma Durga, we should be happy that beyond ‘Little India’, Mauritius is rather part of the Greater India of the Global Indian Diaspora, which pitches us to a higher level of engagement in the evolving global context.

* Published in print edition on 12 October 2021

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