Religious practices: Continuity and Change

Mauritian Diaspora in UK

In March 2002, a scholar writing a research report in the International Institute for Asian Studies newsletter remarked that not much was known about the historical experience of different communities of Asians living in Britain. He expressed the hope that a beginning had been made with the launching of the Oral History project by the University of Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu studies. There have been a few studies in the 1980s but since then, there have been a number of scholarly works and papers on Hindu communities and Hinduism in Britain (Ballard, 2003, pp. 197, Pocock, David, E, 1976 pp. 345-365).

However Mauritian Hindus have not received any great attention except from one or two Mauritian researchers in Britain though there are often a few references to Mauritian Hindus in a few works on the Hindu diaspora in Britain (Mannick A.R. 1987, Lingayah S. 2008) This is to be expected given that Mauritian Hindus form a tiny community within the Hindu diaspora. This article will be a preliminary exploration of the practices of Mauritian Hindus in Britain and the extent to which their religious practices have been maintained, transformed or even abandoned. As an exploratory paper on cultural and religious experience of only a segment of the Mauritian diaspora, it may also shed some light on other segments of the Mauritian diaspora and how far the social, religious and cultural aspects of the diaspora as opposed to their material aspects of their lives are important in their relationship with their country of origin.

Hindus from Mauritius have migrated to Britain since the late 1950s, in the 60s and at present there are three generations of Mauritian Hindus in Britain (Mannick A.R., 1987). In the 50s, many skilled and semi-skilled workers emigrated to work as tailors and mechanics. Later, many joined the nursing profession and in the 1970s and 1990s, many had emigrated to improve their life prospects as a result of unemployment or simply to enable their children to pursue university studies. There have also been a number of Mauritian students who have settled in Britain.

According to some figures there are about 50,000 Mauritians in London but we do not have their composition in terms of the different ethnic groups or social class. Our study focuses on the Mauritian Hindus because of our proximity with this group in terms of ethnicity and religion. Mauritian Hindus may have a higher population than other segments of the diaspora in Britain and have more organizations, which appear on the web. We have identified four Mauritian Muslim organisations, one Catholic organisation and several Hindu organisations reflecting the diversity of this community and its ethnic and regional dimensions. We have not done a fieldwork and have relied on personal contacts, drawn from our own experience with people we know, conducted about 19 unstructured interviews and gleaned information from the web. There is a Mauritian newspaper in Britain but it has no archives on the web and copies are not available in Mauritius libraries. The paper rests primarily on these scanty sources of information, a few works by Mauritian authors, and monographs by foreign scholars researching generally on Hindu diaspora in Britain. The Hindus from Mauritius live mostly in Central London, but also in North London and in the South East.

It must be underlined that the Mauritian community consists mainly of Hindus, Muslims and Catholics. Present Internet sources indicate the existence of Mauritian societies with the participation of Mauritians from all religious groups but there are also Hindu associations organised along linguistic and regional basis such as Tamil, Bihari, Telegu and Marathi. These organisations largely reflect the Mauritian situation. Public festivals celebrated in Mauritius such as Cavadee, Maha Shivratree or Ganesh Chaturthi mirror the ethnic and linguistic identities of these communities in Mauritius, and this pattern is largely reproduced in Britain.

Although all Hindus worship Shiva, Ganesh, Muruga and Vishnu, the varying importance given to each deity by different ethnic groups in the religious festivals reflect the ethnic identity of the different communities, which had always prevailed in Mauritius. There are also Mauritian societies in many universities to help Mauritians adapt to life in UK and, to some extent, help students to retain and reinforce the cultural and religious aspects of their lives. They organise events to mark religious festivals. For the Divali festival, there is sharing of cakes. However, it should be noted that students do not join the Mauritian societies in universities for religious purposes and these have little impact on their religious life. Different associations in UK have pages on the web – Mauritian Marathi Society, Mauritian Party in London UK, Strictly Mauritian Tamils in UK and Hindu Mauritian Temple in UK.

First Generation Approach towards adaptation

With this background of Mauritian Hindus in Britain, we can explore how Mauritian Hindus adapt their religious practices in Britain. These communities are dynamic and they continuously evolve over time. However a distinction must be made between the first group of Mauritian immigrants and later generations as they adapt to the changing milieu. In fact, there are different phases of adaptation for the first group – a pioneering phase when the first group of Mauritian immigrants found themselves in a new environment which was disruptive, foreign, alienating and yet modern compared to their home society and later groups which were born and brought up in Britain and faced different challenges. In discussing Mauritian Hindus, other factors need to be taken into consideration. They not only belong to different generations, but also, in terms of education and the conditions each generation encounters and also within each group, there is also a gender dimension. Since the different generations have had to face different challenges one can therefore expect that their strategies, attitudes and objectives of each generation will also differ over time.

It has been remarked in America that religious identity takes on a greater significance for immigrants than they do in their home country and for two reasons – because of disruption and dislocation, religion becomes a “theologizing experience”; second, because religion creates and sustains ethnicity (Kurien P. – Religion, ethnicity and politics; Hindu and Muslim Indian immigrants in the United States. Ethnic and racial studies Vol 24 No 2 March 2001 pp 263-293).

With regard to Mauritian Hindus of the first generation, there is no indication that they became more religious although the majority chose to take spouses in their own ethnic and religious group. In fact it appears that they became less religious because of the new environment. In this first phase, most of them faced an uphill struggle for survival and faced innumerable problems in relation to jobs, language, housing and all the other problems of adapting to a new environment. In such circumstances, most of them did not have a room to live and shared one with friends; many were young people in the 20s and unmarried.

Although missing their home environment, all of them were also impressed with the modernity of life in Britain, the materialistic aspects of life as well as the freedom they enjoyed and they were willing to take advantage of new opportunities. Even though they faced various problems living in Britain, many adapted quickly to the Western way of life. Many visited pubs, attended parties regularly on Fridays rather than fasting, consumed beef and pork — food prohibited by Hindus in Mauritius – a departure from norms which characterized the behaviour of many. Communication with home was difficult except for the exchange of rare letters. In these circumstances, religious practices were less important than the struggle for survival. Religion got reduced to personal prayers the more so that they could only appeal to God for support in times of difficulties (Kurien P., 2001, PP. 263-293).

The new context in which Mauritians moved in England is different in many ways, and these shaped the attitudes of Mauritian immigrants. Moving from an underdeveloped to developed country, the immigrants were confronted with an alien environment in which old ways of life and even religious practices had to adapt to a new environment. This new environment looked secular to them and the notion of sacred which had characterized many aspects of their life in Mauritius had to adapt to a secular space, objects, calendar, date, time, festival, dress, music. Values were consequently modified and transformed. There was no public holiday to celebrate religious festivals; there was a different calendar to regulate their daily life. One could not easily fast, find time to pray and avoid prohibited food.

Religion was less important to these emigrants because people were attracted to Britain mainly for economic reasons and so this factor shaped their attitudes in the new environment. Some went to UK to free their family from debt bondages, therefore their priority was to work and save money to send to Mauritius, In some families, it was very common to send their elder son to work in the UK. The elder son had the responsibility to send money for the education of his other sisters and brothers in Mauritius. Many girls embraced a nursing profession. They had only time for work and rest and were cut off from the religious activities observed in Mauritius.

It is only gradually that they could attain some economic stability by securing a long-term employment which gave them some security, enough money to rent a room and save some money for getting a partner or a wife and raise a family. They also had a great fascination for British society and were happy that their children were exposed to a different culture at British schools. Language also played a role. One interviewee expressed his admiration at his children’s fluency in English. This achievement was the result from going to a British school and making friends with the British children. Therefore western culture was consciously preferred to Mauritian and Hindu culture.

In this early phase, a process of individuation and desacralisation too persisted and required emigrants to make adjustments. Birthdays were reduced to a merely festive event rather than a semi-religious event. Religious festivals were reduced to food and drink parties. Most interviewees reveal that people attended the festivals to meet Mauritian friends and to enjoy traditional food rather than for religious reasons although this consideration was not totally absent.

Even in their homes, several adjustments had to be made in their new lives in terms of religious practices and values. Religious symbols and practices, which had been common in Mauritius, were not revived. Those who settled and brought their wives and children from Mauritius had very few relatives and lived on their own in relative isolation. Even Indian names and Hindu names have had to be altered, anglicised or even replaced by new names. Shamoogum became Sam, Hansraj became Hans.

Certain ethnic suffixes like Devi, Singh, Roy fell into disuse. The practice of using the name of grandfather also was no longer adopted. The secularisation of home life does not mean that the Hindu changed his religion. He or she remained a Hindu in its identity and in his inner spiritual world and this was facilitated by the flexibility of Hinduism which did not make rigid demands on him.

A major factor that played a critical role in shaping the life of emigrants was marriages whatever be the generations they belonged to, for these had a major impact on religious practices. For this first generation the choice of partner or wife or husband was important in shaping the religious identity of the family. Mannick in his book has provided a short sample of Mauritian marriages in Britain. In a sample of 200, he found in 1980s that 65 percent of the marriages of Mauritians were made in Mauritius and 65 percent of young people prefer to marry a Mauritian while 15 percent would marry non-Mauritian. The parents too felt the same. Those who married outside their religious group might keep and observe their personal religions but their children were brought up in the British culture through socialization at school and in the neighborhood.

On the other hand, endogamous marriages can well determine the direction Hindu practices will take while inter-religious marriages diluted or eroded the religious legacy (Mannick A.R.). For example, in case of inter-religious marriages, some parents stick to their respective religions and children were left to grow up without any religion at all. In one such family, the husband kept a personal religious corner to which he alone prays and remains faithful to his religion. His wife was of different religion while the son did not follow any religion at all. On the other hand, marriages within both the ethnic groups or even the wider Hindu religious groups would bring in new forms of rituals – marriage, birth and socialization.

Sada J. Reddi & Dreesha Daworaz


* Published in print edition on 18 December 2015

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