Last Easter, after a week-long visit in Qatar, we visited Britain, especially the northern part of the country which I have personally not visited for the last 45 years.
As we drove through East Anglia with its farmland interspersed with fields of daffodils and pasture land, I came across a notice board in Norwich announcing the construction of a Hindu temple. Lying a little further from notice board was a red brick building, which I later learnt had earlier housed an old English pub. I was curious to learn a little more about the project — not because a pub was being converted into a temple, but rather to learn from the present so that it could shed light on our own past.
I was a little surprised that Norwich had need for a Hindu temple. When I visited the town, there was no evidence of any large immigrant community. At most, one could come across a handful of immigrants in the shopping centres. If ever there was such a community, it was rather not too visible. Later I learnt that there were in fact some 2000 Hindus living in Norwich and that a group of Hindus had been on the lookout for an appropriate site to put up a temple since some 15 years. During all that time Hindus have been meeting regularly in a hall in St Mary’s Catholic Church for their religious and cultural events. The Planning Board had finally granted them permission to turn the pub into a place of worship. In the meantime the local Hindus are holding their prayers in the pub pending the construction of their temple.
The fact that Hindus of Norwich have taken 15 years just to obtain a site for their temple should not come as a surprise to us. Other religious groups in different parts of the world have had to face similar situations for altogether different reasons. One person in Norwich even recalled that for the last 30 years it had been difficult for him to observe his religious practices and very often his family have had to travel all the way to London and other places to celebrate their religious festivals.
This particular case should remind us that in Mauritius too, as in any other country, building places of worship has always been an uphill struggle spread over many years requiring vision, dedication and very high spiritual commitment.
The point to remember is not that there is a time lag between the conception of a project and its implementation for that fits in the normal course of things for any project – religious or secular. What needs to be highlighted is that there are particular difficulties when it comes to a place of worship and the problems are not necessarily confined to financial and other material resources.
In Isle de France, Indian Muslims had been in the island from the early years of French rule and it was only in 1805 that they were granted permission to build the first mosque in Plaine Verte. Even for churches which enjoyed the support and the approval of the colonial authorities, it took quite a long time to build a church. In Mahebourg, the idea of building an Anglican church was conceived in 1838 and the laying of the foundation stone took place in 1854 when Bishop Ryan visited Mauritius. The Catholic church Notre Dame des Anges was completed in 1858 though the site had been earmarked during the rule of Governor Decaen.
For other religious communities, constructing a place of worship was a protracted struggle especially if the community lacked the financial as well as the human resources. The Veeramakali Kovil at Terre Rouge was constructed in 1859 and we are told that the main deity had been introduced in the island much earlier and kept in a cauldron dated 1803. The Hindu organisation at Gokoola was set up in 1859 and the Shivala completed in 1867. Most of our places of worship have gone through almost the same processes which reflect the tremendous courage, determination and spiritual commitment of our ancestors to attain their objectives.
Our churches, temples and mosques were generally built with support from members of all the communities in the island. Most often financial contribution came from people outside the particular religious group, and even the builders and masons were never confined to any religious or ethnic group. An article by Swami Krisnanath published in L’Express in 1989 reminded us that one and the same team of architects was responsible for the construction of the Maheswanath Temple in Triolet, the renovation of Jummah Mosque and the Sockalingum Meenatchee Ammen Temple – both in Port Louis — in the 1890s.
It is therefore fair to consider that all the places of worship form an important part of the heritage of all Mauritians who contributed in one way or another to enhance our religious landscape. Today these buildings, apart from their religious and sacred functions, also represent a very important facet of our social and cultural heritage –their architecture, their history and their links with the local community.
As the case of the future Norwich Mandir reminds us, behind its future construction is a very rich history of human aspirations and devotion. Similarly each of our religious structures, however modest it may be, conceals a very rich history of men and women taking personal initiatives and winning the support of the wider community to realize very ambitious and sometimes what initially looked almost impossible to achieve religious projects.
We may regret that this precious heritage is not well known to the wider public and even to the descendants of these various local communities who stood together behind these many constructions. These sacred buildings have a very rich architectural beauty and we can learn a lot about the values embedded in them. Depending on which type of religious buildings we visit, we can also discover and appreciate their rich iconography and their paintings.
In Mauritius we still lack an analytical history of religions practiced here and know very little about the history of our religious structures. Sometimes, some communities make it a point to publish magazines to mark important events, and these contribute significantly to our understanding of the past. But they are far too few. It is time that local religious organisations and local community organisations to undertake research about the different places of worship in their localities and bring out leaflets for the benefit of the public. Such an initiative would unravel an important part of our history and our religious heritage for us and for future generations.
At the same time we would be showing our appreciation and our sense of gratitude for the precious legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors. So next time we visit a place of worship let us spare some thoughts for the building itself and for those who put up these buildings for us.
* Published in print edition on 20 May 2016