Religious practices: Continuity and Change

Mauritian Diaspora in UK

Whatever be the form of marriages amongst the Mauritian diaspora in the UK, the birth of children generally led to revival and adaptation of religious practices. In the case of Mauritian Hindu couples they kept their religious practices at their personal levels. They prayed at home and hardly observed other religious rituals. Being young Mauritian families, they were not familiar with the organization of those rituals; moreover, they had to go to work and were cut off from many ritual practices. In most families, many of the Hindu practices have almost disappeared or reduced to a minimum.

However, with the birth of children religious socialization entered a new stage because of the presence of grandparents from Mauritius. Many couples decided to bring their elders as nannies to avoid leaving their children in a nursery mainly for financial and cultural reasons. The presence of elders marked a turning point in the religious identity of the family. In the absence of elders, birth rituals and other rituals before and after childbirth were not practiced in the UK. The bath rituals with different plants on specific days, was abandoned. Parents did not even consult a priest for naming their child. Names underwent different stages of Anglicisation. British names are used and very often names which have a resonance in both Indian and British are preferred like: Jenny, Pam and Sweety. Very short names were preferred because the British could not pronounce long Indian names correctly.

Since 90% of the married women took up a jobs (Mannick A. R., 1987), there was plenty of opportunities for elders who came to Britain to influence religious life in the home. Whether they came for a short or a longer period, they set the norms of religious practices in the home. During their stay they seized the opportunity to recall what was forgotten, like a place of worship in the house, birth, rituals and traditional medicine. Arranged marriages with Mauritians or with people in the same religious group were promoted with the view to keep up traditions. Religious ceremony was revived to mark the birth of a child, a death or a wedding. The elders, especially women, would insist to have a religious corner in the house but, in parallel, children were socialized differently at school and in the neighbourhood. Death rituals are abridged and adapted to the circumstances. Friends and relatives visit the home of the deceased and participate in the rituals or have the rituals organized in a modified form. After burial, close relatives meet and observe the rituals for a few days.

While some families did not have a definite policy regarding religious upbringing and followed a policy of laissez-faire, others were concerned about the religious values and wanted to bring up their children in their own religious traditions as it is recognized that among Hindus religion creates and sustains ethnicity. Lingayah found that Mauritians in Britain organized themselves on ethnic lines compared to Mauritians in France (Lingayah S.2008, pp.)

In Britain, several strategies were employed to promote both religion and ethnicity. In addition to bringing elders as mentioned above, some families wanted their children to know the Hindu Mauritian Culture. They use the Creole language at home in UK and take part in all Hindu festivals there. They come to Mauritius very often for holidays to live the Mauritian culture.

A well-settled Tamil family in UK, came to settle in Mauritius for around 6-7 years, so as to show their only daughter their culture and traditions. They wanted to keep her away from the Western culture and once she completed her secondary level at Bocage, and became more mature, they went back to UK. They did not want their daughter to marry a British, another reason for them coming to Mauritius. It must be remarked that many young men were induced and nudged into taking their spouses from Mauritius or marrying girls of Mauritius origins in Britain. As for the girls, we do not have any example of girls from Mauritian families marrying boys from Mauritius but some married boys of Mauritian origins in Britain.

Religious organisations

The formation of families with spouses whether drawn from Britain or in Mauritius resulted in the formation of religious or ethnic networks which very often developed into informal associations. This is made easier because jati or even regional divisions among Mauritian Hindus tend to lose their salience in Britain though they continue to exist (Kurien P). Such family networks and associations consolidated traditional rituals because advice and support was available to revive the rituals of birth and other life cycle events and slowly give rise to small informal religious associations. Death rituals though not practised with great elaboration by Mauritian Hindus were observed in modified forms.

From interviews, some Hindus called priests at home for some personal prayers. In the 1980s, in the absence of a temple, some Mauritian Hindus joined the Hindu Centre in Golders Green where a hawan and other ceremonies were performed. In Balham, Mauritians visited the local Hindu Temple. Many Tamils were attracted to the Archway temple. A few religious organisations continued to meet in the home and with the increase in members, a social hall was hired to accommodate greater numbers for religious events. This is not different from Hindus in nineteenth century in Mauritius who organized prayers in the home or in baithkas or at the small Kalimaye, and only at the end of the nineteenth century started building temples. Many had also been influenced by the Arya Samaj and did not need to build temples.

Organizations’ objectives and activities

At present there are a number of formal organisations which have been set up from the late 1980s and which previously existed as ethnic and religious or family networks. These have been set up by the second generation of Mauritian immigrants and they mark a fresh stage of the development towards religious practices. Religious festivals are usually accompanied by prayers in Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Marathi depending on the linguistic or regional group and these serve to maintain their religious and sub-cultural identities.

In parallel, there were other non-Mauritian Hindu religious orgnisations, which attract Mauritian Hindus especially as they have no temples of their own. In the cases of Tamils, they attended the Sri Lankan Tamils and other South Indian Tamil Temples (Mannick A.R – Mauritians in London). Bihari Hindus particularly those belonging to the Rajput jati, visit temples in London but few Mauritians would go outside London for religious pilgrimage although it is noted that a few went to Birmingham to visit the Temple in honour of Dr Ambedkar. Biharis, Marathis and Telegus continue to celebrate their festivals at home and in social halls hired on certain occasions. For Ganesh Chaturthi, Marathis, in addition to prayers at home, have identified a seaside resort for the immersion of the idol of Lord Ganesh. Some of the Marathis who can neither organize a procession nor find a water resort for immersion of Lord Ganesh organize a water basin in the yard for the immersion.

On the other hand, Tamils in Mauritius had for practical reasons started to build temples from the mid-nineteenth century. A few temples were built by the merchant class but afterwards temples were built to organise the two major festivals of Cavadee and walking on fire. Later under the influence of Tamil Telegus, the festival of Govinden, a Vaishnavite festival, had been embraced by all Tamils and had become as popular as Cavadee. Tamil festivals such as Cavadee and specially walking on fire were attended regularly by the colonial Governors, sugar estate managers and politicians. One might argue that a small Tamil community of Illford London was inspired by their Mauritian experience in organizing fire walking. In the 1980s a few Tamil Mauritians joined the Sri Lankan to organize the Cavadee at the Archway Temple and a public chariot procession. Recently Mauritian Tamils had set up a small temple in Illford to celebrate walking on fire and made it into a public festival after the Queen had visited their temple.

At present, Mauritian Hindus especially from Bihar organized their activities through social organizations. The objects of these organisations are many. They aim at preserving Hindu Mauritian culture by bringing UK Mauritian Hindus together to share ideas, celebrate festivals and come together for events. Only recently there was a post on the prayer done for ancestors that is the ‘Pitarpak.’ The Mauritius Hindu organization (Tooting) UK founded in 2007 aims to enable Mauritians practice faith, maintain their culture and support the younger generation whilst they, in turn, learn about their culture and traditions from home. They regularly celebrate religious Hindu festivals and also cultural events such as Independence Day, Republic Day, May Day, Christmas, in fact some of the celebrations which they would have observed in Mauritius. While in Mauritius, some have a special place for Hanuman worship In UK especially in the cities such arrangements could not be made, because special building permission is needed from the Council which is not usually given. However people living in the countyside and which have their own land, have placed a statue of the God Hanuman in the garden.

The young in the community organize research, speech writing, singing of bhajans and kirtan. These events bring their members together, establish networks, provide a forum for socialistion and aim at perpetuating their multiple identities – regional, Hindu and Mauritian. The activities of the Mauritius Hindu orgnisation in Tooting are replicated by other regional Hindu organisations -Tamil, Telegu and Marathi and the Mauritian experience continues to shape their Mauritian Hindu identity in Britain. The Marathis have formed a society in the UK known as the Mauritian Marathi Society. In 2015, they organized the Ganesh Chaturthi festival at the Darji Mitra Mandir, Palmers Green. In UK, there are different places where public celebrations are held to mark the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. For instance celebrations are held at the Slough Mitra Mandan, in Slough, Hounslow Ganeshotsav Mandal, Hounslow, the Saidham Nottingham Ganeshotsav, Nottingham and Ganesh Utsavsamithi at Milton, Keynes. The Ganesh Visarjan is often held at Southend-on-sea, where thousands of people across UK, travel to attend. Other festivals celebrated by the Mauritian Marathi Society are: Guddipadwa and Chatrapati Shivaji Day. The Shivaji day is marked by speeches, performances and even videos showing the achievements of the great warrior. The Guddipadwa is also celebrated by the Mauritian Marathi Association.

The Mauritian Tamils began to join religious organisations only after Sri Lankan Tamils had set up a first temple at Archway Temple and were the ones who also organized the Govinden festival to the surprise of Sri Lankan Tamils who are strict Saivaites. Tamils in Mauritius have a distinct approach to public religious festivals adopting a more austere approach, a tradition which they developed in a multicultural society of Mauritius which, for a long period of history, set catholic religiosity as the norm of public procession. For example, Mauritian Tamils who carry Cavadee will follow strict austere norms and wear traditional dress and are shocked to find others carrying Cavadee wearing jeans. Mauritian Tamils do not generally feel at ease in Sri Lankan Tamil Temples partly because of their distinctive religious tradition but also because they do not speak the Tamil language. It was in order to retain their distinctive tradition that they organized walking on Fire in Ilford, brought Tamil priests from Mauritius to organize the ceremony because apparently Sri Lankan and South Indian priests in Britain do not know the popular rituals associated with walking on fire.

Present situation – Normality and Stability

If the first generations have their Hindu identities shaped by their Mauritian experience, one could ask what changes have taken place in second and third generations. One can expect a number of changes taking place which dilute their Mauritian Hindu identity or complete the acculturation to different British cultures The practices mentioned above refer to second generation of Mauritian immigrants and one can wonder whether the practices of the second generation are taken up by the present younger generation. At present, there are several factors which undermine Hindu practices among the younger generation – inter ethnic and religious marriages, lack of religious socializations, the school curriculum, the values of British society and the isolation of families and their geographical dispersal. On the other hand, wealth, travel facilities, information technology as well as the transformation of Britain into a plural society and changes in the school curriculum to include the different religious faiths as well as access to books enable more knowledge to spread about Hinduism among both Hindus and non-Hindus.

A survey of Facebook suggests that some of the young know about particular festivals, traditions and continue to preserve and live certain aspects of their Hindu culture. There are posts on different rites and rituals and festivals. Only recently in the Hindu Mauritians UK page there was a post on the Pitrpaksh ritual whereby they pray to their ancestors. There were posts on the Navratri and Govinden fasts. These posts are shared by the younger generation. When information regarding culture is shared by people from the same age group, it is more likely to be accepted. This would have been different if elders in the family had tried to inculcate a religious culture given the generation gap and many other factors would have made it unacceptable by the youngsters.

Therefore, through different social networking sites, one may conclude that youngsters today are aware about culture and traditions and take an active part in maintaining certain traditions. In spite of their British milieu in which they live, cultural retention is achieved through social networking sites like Twitter and communication through Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber. However one may remark from the photos posted that in certain festivals there is an absence of young men. On the one hand, one may argue that this is explained by the generation gap between the old and the young, indifference to religious practices and failure to communicate and transmit religious practices. On the other hand, one may argue that this is a world trend with children and girls and women playing a more active part in certain religious practices generally. In Mauritius the trend is the same for young men will play an important role in the logistics and organization and a lesser participation in the rituals. The celebration of festivals like Govinden or Cavadee in Britain register an active participation of the youth dressed in traditional dress. In general, it is women who are regarded as the guardian of culture and religious practices.

At present, several factors contribute to reinforce Hindu identity among Mauritians. Concentration of population in specific areas will further reinforce Hindu practices because it will give rise to community networks, organizations and the construction of temples around which religious life will be perpetuated. Concentration of population serve to revitalize not only religious practices but also cultural practices – songs, films, dances, language, ethnic recreation, dress and other cultural traditions The advent of the global village contributes to the globalization of religion and Mauritian Hindus are no exception.

As immigrant religions became recognized in plural Britain, Hindus feel free to practice their religion with greater confidence. Though Hinduism has no great tradition of proselytization and, in general, Hindu teachings are relatively absent, the persistence of Hinduism rests on the increase in its population through natural increase, but also on its capability to instil certain human values and assimilate people who join family networks through temple rituals and other spiritual and health practices.

Another development which is likely to happen in the future is: with gradual loss of “Mauritianness” among the subsequent generations, one can anticipate the absorption of Mauritian Hindus into the greater Hindu community be it Guajarati, Sri Lankan and become part of a pan-Hindu community or an Asian Hindu identity. Already, many Mauritians visit other Hindu temples in their localities when they do not have a Mauritian temple though they generally do not feel at ease since they have distinct religious practices and at present a Mauritian identity is not recognized in UK as all Hindus are categorized as Asians.

In discussing about information technology, we should not oversee the role of films, television serial and cable TV which also contribute to armchair religiosity. In the end, it is temple-building and the concentration of Hindu dwellings around temples, which will perpetuate Hinduism in a new environment, and this has been the experience of the Hindu diasporas in both colonial and post-colonial environments.

Sada J. Reddi & Dreesha Daworaz

 

* Published in print edition on 25 December 2015

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