Phooliyar Revisited

In the context of the 177th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of Indian Indentured Immigrants

By Sarita Boodhoo

Way back in 1983, I made a proposal to the then Government for the 150th Anniversary Celebrations of the coming of Indian Indentured Immigrants to Mauritius. This idea had visited my mind forcefully for quite some years. Finally, I contacted Uttama Bissoondoyal, Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. I was also at the time, a member of the Board of Directors of the MGI.

We discussed the broad plans of the celebration. We indeed had a fantastic vision. And we took the idea to the government. Our proposal was readily accepted. We also proposed to celebrate jointly the 150th Anniversary Celebrations of the Abolition of Slavery. And therefore, it was a grandiose celebration spanning two years.

The atmosphere was clement and a huge synergy developed which enabled us to carry out huge projects of national and international dimensions, including academic and scholarly conferences as well as grassroots celebrations with minimum resources at our disposal. The government set up a National Organising Committee. The Committee was composed of representatives of different Ministries, parastatal bodies and socio-cultural and linguistic organisations.

It was a monumental and gigantic work. But once set in motion, we did not look back.

We wanted to trace the first village or estate camp where the first batch of Indian indentured immigrants was taken. Unlike elsewhere in the Indian diaspora, such as the Republic of South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana or even Reunion Island, very little historical writings and research had taken place in Mauritius, except for the works of Dr K. Hazareesingh and some others. Mr Rivaltz Quenette and I set to work to trace the village. We did our research in the Blue Books of the National Assembly as well as at the National Archives. We contacted the Mount Sugar Estate Administration. We visited and consulted with the administrators. Thus we made several visits to the area and were taken to the deserted and abandoned village Antoinette. There was no more a habitation. It was here that according to records that the first 75 Indian Indentured Immigrants were directed, on behalf of the firm Arbuthnot & Co, which also had a recruiting Agency on the Hoogly in Calcutta. Antoinette was part of Le Piton Estate and is at present an annex of Mount Sugar Estate.

The village had actually been shifted, a kilometer or so, to the other side of the main road as facilities such as schools, water, electricity, transport were not available in the original site. Only the ancient small dome-shaped Devi temple with a huge peepal tree resisted the onslaught of time. There was also the chimney ruin with 1865 AD marked on it, still visible and an incredibly huge well, operated by a hand-pump. The football ground is still used by generations of boys of the vicinity.

We decided to put up a monument there in memory of those first Indian indentured immigrants. The monument was conceptualised and executed by young Mala Chummun (now Mrs Ramyead), artist and currently Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the MGI. Mala and I discussed the idea and she came out with the beautiful concept of a lotus plant whose petals also represent the five elements and the communities recruited to work on the sugar fields, with the central part representing the chimney, focalizing on the life of the country and the workers.

We put up a huge infrastructure on the deserted site, with inputs from civic organisations, para-statal bodies and ministries. We recreated Phooliyar, with village fairs, merry-go-round, exhibitions of games played at the time, animals kept, food utilised, artifacts, village lifestyles and habitat.

A ten-day programme was elaborated and huge media coverage was assured by the MBC TV as well as the print media. My appeal to make “jangal mein mangal” had worked magic on the public, every morning on the radio.

Thousands of people flocked to Phooliyar everyday. It was the first ever-grand historical manifestation at grassroots level after the 1935 Centenary Celebrations of Indian Arrival. Phooliyar reverberated with voices, activities and life again. A wedding baraat with some fifteen ox-driven carts, beautifully decorated and choreographed was part of the pageantry. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had put in the soil, next to the monument a “flamboyant/bouquet banané” plant today a full-fledged tree. A living immigrant lady from Mon Goût was decorated.

The one-week festivities lasted from 27 August to 2nd September 1984 at Phooliyar. We researched into the games played by immigrant children and youth such as the Kabbadi, Oka Boka, Pachissi, the Patang. These were enacted. Women groups performed freely on stage for the first time the Bhojpuri as well as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi intangible cultural heritage. These women were up to then confined to sing in the privacy of homes and such celebrations as marriage or birth. The birha, Atha Uddal, Harparawri and other songs of the Geet Gawai were performed on stage. The success was tremendous.

* * *

A few days back, a young man by the name of Ghanshyam Boodhun phoned me and told me he was organising a celebration at Phooliyar on 5th November 2011. He had been asked to contact me by Guruji Sudama Geerdharry. We met during the course of the week at Nalanda Bookshop. I was impressed by his enthusiasm, verve, determination and dedication. He told me he was only 14 at the time of the 1984 celebrations. He is now aged 41. He remembered very clearly the huge larger than life celebration. He asked for my help for next year’s celebration.

As it is rather late for this year. Well, better late than never goes the saying. He told me, he would like his children to remember that he did contribute his mite to the celebration of the coming of his forefathers to that soil. I promised to give him and his committee all my help, time and memoirs, to put up a celebration worthy of name.

In fact, I had similar projects and concepts for the East, South and other parts of the island. But towards the end of the Celebrations by 1985, I found myself engulfed in shifting sands.

Fortunately, today we have legally – instituted instruments such as the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and the National Heritage Trust to take care of such activities now.

*  *  *

To mark the arrival of the Indentured Labourers in Mauritius

The Force Vive de Barlow


Phooliyar Nagar Kalimata Mandir Association

cordially invite you to attend


05 November 2011 – 2 pm – 5 pm


(Rivière du Rempart)

* Published in print edition on 28 October 2011

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