Indian Immigrants and Their Religions – An Overview

By Sadasivam J. REDDI

The proliferation of religious organisations will persist with new technology, but also with the adoption by religious organisations of the business paradigm. New immigrants and new missionaries will bring with them new religious practices and the religious landscape will further become diversified 

This brief article surveys the development of religions among Indian indentured workers and the Indian merchant class during the last three centuries. It is obvious that Indians brought their respective religious traditions when they arrived in Mauritius but over the last three centuries many of them have also embraced a host of new religious traditions.

Though the majority still held to what may be termed their ancestral religions, these religious practices have undergone transformations of different kinds and these new influences came with the arrival of missionaries from India. Mauritians visiting India encountered new cults and practices, which they brought to the island. Indian films and songs played an important role, and today with the Internet, one can expect the religious landscape to remain dynamic as every new tradition in India will find an echo in Mauritius. This article will thus be descriptive and highlight some of the changes that had been taking place in the island over the last three centuries of Indian presence in the island and conclude with an overall assessment of the position of religions in Mauritian society.

In the 18th century, Indians introduced in the island came with a variety of religious traditions. Some were Hindus, others Muslims and a few were Christians, and their religions were just part of their daily lives and since their religious practices were carried out in the privacy of their homes and in small communities, they seldom went public. There is very little we know about their religious practices except that they were not different from what they practiced in India. We have only fragmentary evidence about religious practices. Indian names provide some indication of their religious traditions and sometimes religious utensils which are listed in documents can indicate religious practices.

In the late 18th century, religious practices among the Muslims had gone public with the establishment of a mosque and the celebration of the Yamse festival. Indian Christians had their church built only in 1823 at St Francois and it was an Indian Christian, Amor, who donated his land to Father Laval to build the church at St Croix. As for Hindus, it was reported that they had a place of worship in the Camp de Malabar, but no edifice has survived though R. Sooriamoorthy recalled talking to somebody who remembered the edifice.

After religious worship, practices and festivals became public in the 18th century, the trend continued in the 19th century, with the arrival of Indian indentured workers and the Indian merchant class. Several religious festivals became public, notably the Yamse, Cavadee and walking on fire, Sankranti and Divali while most religious observances remained private. Public worship was first done around shrines under a tree or around shrines set up in various spots, particularly in estate camps and later in villages. Whether in estate camps or in villages, group initiatives led by the sirdars resulted in the establishment of a number of places of worship, and various religions with their specific cultural practices became well established. Religious instruction was given in baitkas and madrassahs. A number of religious festivals were celebrated and the Indian indentured workers adapted their religious calendars to the rhythm of plantation life. In the 1850 Moharram was celebrated by Hindus and Muslim without distinction.

In the 19th century, traders and merchants not only imported spices, cereals, textiles and other goods but also religious utensils, statues, books as well as beliefs and values. Critical elites emerged, with greater consciousness of the need to preserve religious and cultural identities but also to empower the communities in their negotiation with the State. After the 1850s, several developments took place in the construction of places of worship. The Tamil middle-class built merchant temples at Terre Rouge, Port-Louis, Maheboug, Flacq and Mare d’Albert. The emergence of a rural middle-class led to the construction of a major temple at Triolet. The Muslim middle-class started the Jummah Mosque in 1853 and assisted the construction of mosques in several villages. Places of worship were also set up in villages as indentured workers left the camps for villages.

In the 1860s, Vellyvoil Rajarethnum Moodeliar , an Indian nationalist in Mauritius lectured on the Vedas and propagated the ideas of the Brahmo Samaj to a small urban Indian elite. Divali, Sankranti and Holi were regularly celebrated in the island. In the 1870s, a Brahmin priest had been brought to the Nicolay Kovil and became the first of a series of Brahmin priests to officiate in kovils in Mauritius. In contrast to the pre-1850s where the indentured class suffered from a dearth of women, by the 1870s, there was a greater equilibrium in the sexes in that class, and women played a crucial role in consolidating religious and cultural values as Indians became organised communities.

There were also Indian Christians among indentured workers and they were mostly Catholics. A Protestant Mission only became active in the 1860s and both catholic and protestant missionaries were brought from India to work among Indian indentured workers. In 1861, Rev L. Pucinelli and F. Roy set up a catholic mission. In 1882, Rev John Ernest, a Tamil was ordained archdeacon and in 1889 became the first of a line of local clergymen.

The Maha Shivaratri festival was celebrated with a pilgrimage to Grand Bassin in 1897. With the support of colonial government and estate proprietors, pressure was exerted to win converts but they remained a minority segment. Such pressure came to a halt after the labour unrest of 1937 but was continued thereafter, with very little success among domestic servants and household workers.

In the 20th century, several factors contributed to influence religious practices. Increasing contact with India brought several religious emissaries to the island and their influence was strongly felt in all walks of life. In 1910, Manilal Doctor established the Arya Samaj movement in Mauritius which resulted in a reform of religious practices, but also brought new dynamics in the Hindu community. In 1913, Noormamode Nooraya became the first convert to Ahmadiyyat and within a few years Ahmadism had began to spread in Mauritius. In 1928 Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddiqui visited Mauritius and through his lectures created a spiritual alertness among Muslims. In 1931, the Yaum-un-Nabi was celebrated as a public function though the idea had been a launched earlier by Abdul Majid Quarshi from India. 1925 saw the creation of the Hindu Maha Sabha and in 1923 the Gujarati community set up a society and in 1931 built the Vishnu Chetre Mandir at St Denis Street.

In the late 20th century, Indians have embraced almost every religious tradition found in India and elsewhere. Apart from their affiliation to mainstream religions, Indians can be found in a number of religious organisations — Sai Baba, Bahai, Pentecostal, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and a number of other organisations and if we were to include Marxism or even an anti-Indian organisation, Indians are most likely to be found not only as their adherents but most often as their leaders. However, reforms have been an inherent part of Indian religious organisations leading to fissures and the emergence of new groups and reformed practices. Some of the reforms have also aimed at purifying one’s religion or separating religions from their cultural and historical roots but with little success. Religions have become embedded in Indian communities and remained strong markers of cultural identity, and Indians consciously or unconsciously have overall retained a common Indianness and basic Indian values, even when remotely they appeared to be unbelievers.

Indian immigrants have thus developed a complex religious landscape in relative peace and have lived generally peacefully. Over the years, followers of these religious traditions have accommodated themselves with their neighbours and learnt to develop a sense of tolerance which is unique in the world. This does not mean that the sense of respect towards each other’s beliefs and rituals has been completely free of tensions, or even religious riots which fortunately had been extremely rare in our history. Tensions have flared up within families, communities and also between communities at various times but they have never been a threat to social and political stability in the island.

These tensions and the proliferation of religious organisations will persist with new technology, but also with the adoption by religious organisations of the business paradigm. New immigrants and new missionaries will bring with them new religious practices and the religious landscape will further become diversified. Mainstream religions will undergo further decline as people seek escape from the social problems facing modern society. Finally, in all these changes, it is the state and those at the helm of economic affairs who stand to gain and become powerful to dominate society. Proliferation of religious organisations will have a positive impact on Mauritian society, viewed from the State point of view. Not only will they provide a safety valve for economic and political tensions resulting from globalisation, they will also continue to provide opium to the people.

Globalised religious groups will further deflect attention and energies from economic and social issues, weaken mainstream religions in their relationship with the State and contribute towards the consolidation of the State, the capitalist forces and groups in society. Just imagine what some of the religious groups, and leaders like Cehl Meeah or Krit Manohar (particularly their hyperactive leaders) could have done had they channelled their energies to tackle poverty, the land and housing problems, alcoholism or drugs. It will not be an exaggeration to say that overnight they would have secured solutions to these problems. It is time they give some thought to these emerging issues. After all it was not the great Gokhale who freed India but the religious radical Gandhi.

* Published in print edition on 29 October 2010

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