The Significance of the Yaj

Celebration of the 176th Anniversary of Indian Indentured Arrival

By Sarita Boodhoo

The Aapravasi Ghat Indian Indentured Arrival Celebration Committee (President Mrs Sarita Boodhoo, Secretary Mrs Rita Ramlallah) as per tradition for the past several decades, celebrated the Annual Yaj started by late Beekrumsing Ramlallah on Tuesday 2nd November at the Aapravasi Ghat.

The annual Yaj has become a significant symbol in the commemoration of the advent of the Indian Indentureship in Mauritius. It was on the basis of this Yaj and of the parallel campaign of awareness undertaken by the Committee that the Government of Mauritius eventually, in 1987, decreed the Aapravasi Ghat as a national monument, and that eventually led to its being recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006. Performed by the Pandits and Panditas of the major socio-cultural organisations of the country, it has come to generate a solemnity and poignancy that no words can describe to those hundreds of participants who come annually to attend the Yaj. This year the presence and participation in the Yaj of Pandita Indrani Rampersad, Research Fellow in Hidden Cultures at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, who has come to Mauritius to research on the Ramlila, assumed an overall unique historical commemoration in the diaspora. In that after the successful introduction of Indian Indentureship in Mauritius on 2nd November 1834, the colonizers repeated the story elsewhere in the plantation colonies. Thus it was on 30th May 1845 that the Indian Indentures first set their foot on the soil of Trinidad, eleven years after the Mauritian experience.

As a token, a set of books on Maurtius and Indology including Kanya Dan, and the recent publications Speak Bhojpuri – Bhojpuri Bola and An Easy Approach to Bhojpuri Grammar by Mrs S. Boodhoo were presented to Pandita Rampersad as Trinidad PIOs face the tragic realization of language loss by the present generation of descendants of Indian Immigrants there. Dr Rampersad says she may use these books as references for the revival of the loss of some of the intangible heritage of the PIOs in Trinidad and Tobago.

The Yaj implies a sacrifice — the giving of Ahuti and a tribute to the ancestors for their united sacrifices, for the sweat, tears, blood with which they nurtured the soil of Mauritius so that today it is a prosperous and stable nation. They had the determination and perseverance, the will power to forge ahead despite humiliation, oppression and injustice suffered. But they did not give up. They preserved religious tenets and values, cultures and traditions and languages, art forms and culinary habits though derided and condemned to remain a silent majority. Their tenacity, resilience and unity challenged all means of subjugation and efforts of prozelytization. They did not bend their back in the face of insolent might. They were not weak-kneed and did not sell their souls for material gains. They preserved their values for us who now enjoy all the facilities and comforts of modernity (though there are still thousands who still live in abject poverty) and pleasures of consumerism, values and traditions that cement families and society.

Today’s descendants of those stalwarts face with helplessness a fragmentation of family units and loss of values that is throwing us all into disarray and making society fragile. It is for this reason that Mrs Sarita Boodhoo laid stress on the need for speaking, preserving and promoting our languages preserved for almost 200 years in remarkable continuity and secondly on the need to have inspiring cultural manifestations that would infuse values, tenacity, integrity and a real sense of culture in today’s youth. The presentation of poetry and songs by well-known artists and poets of the island was a pointer in that direction. Those who participated included Seeta Ramyead, Suryadev Seebaruth, Rambha Ramtohul, Hoosila Reesal, Gyan Mohipatlal and Kishore Goburdhun.


Mrs Boodhoo recalled that a decade ago, youth clubs and associations all over the country used to stage small theatrical plays such as Ramlila for Divali and other healthy cultural activities based on relevant and beautiful millennia-tested cultural matrix. Thus she reiterated the request she made last year to the then Minister of Education, Arts and Culture and to Shri Madhusadan Ganapati, Indian High Commissioner for bringing the famous magnificent and grandiose Ramlila troupe from India. Mr Mookeshwar Choonee, Minister of Arts and Culture present at the Yaj gave a public commitment that this proposal would be retained. Mrs Anita Arora, Director of Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture (IGCIC) said she would transmit the message to the Indian High Commissioner and the ICCR in New Delhi.

Mrs Boodhoo also seized the opportunity to draw the attention of the audience and the authorities to the fact that among those trying to trace their roots and ancestry in India and the obtention of the PIO card, there are thousands of Mauritians and other islanders in the Caribbean such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, who have multiple identities who have at least one lineage from India. Thus she recalled there are place names in Mauritius such Tranquebar and Coromandel that speak of the era before indentureship when free artisans, workers and traders came from South India, the Malabar Coast and Pondicherry. Their descendants although absorbed into the Creole community claim their ancestry from India too. Even in Rodrigues there are place names such as Malabar and surnames of Rodriguans that speak of their Indian ancestry. Similarly, there are people from Agalega, Chagos communities and Seychelles who have Indian names which tell a story of their Indian roots.

In search of Roots: Yogesh – Sylvain Noël Bonne

Mrs Boodhoo drew attention to a strong case in point: that of Sylvain Noël Bonne (now Yogesh, a Yogi who is promoting Yoga and Hinduism through French to youngsters in Reunion Island) whose mother born Mrs Doongoor Johnson (married to Mr Paul Sylvie Bonne) is a fourth generation PIO. It is by chance that Yogesh came across a tattered family document that revealed his Indian ancestry. He was so elated and came to Mauritius in search of his roots. On 16 September 2004 he went to the MGI Archives. The discovery was staggering. His great great grand father, Doongoor immigrant No 238742 came to Mauritius at the age of sixteen in 1859 on board the ship Tasmania from the village of Durkahee in Pergunnah Juhoorabad in Gazeepore, now in UP but then the Outh and Bengal Presidency. His great great grand mother Mauracheea, Immigrant No 187005 who came at the age of four with her father Putaroo came also from Gazeepore on 23 October 1857 on board the ship “Blue Jacket” No 725. Yogesh’s great grand father Ramneehur Doongoor born in Mauritius on 5th September 1873 was married to Miss Marie Ursule Chasseur and thereupon his grandparents were Marie Irene Doongoor and Gerard Antoirne Johnson.

After having gone through all the tedious formalities, three years ago he went to the visa section of the Indian High Commission armed with MGI original documents and his tattered birth certificate of forefathers. His application was turned down and he was asked to produce a new copy of birth certificate which was refused to him by some officer of the Civil Status Office. This year he came again to Mauritius and came to meet Ms Boodhoo at Nalanda Bookshop.

She helped him get a new copy of the original tattered birth certificate and helped him with all the forms and other formalities for the application for a PIO card and accompanied him and his mother Mrs Bonne who was the applicant to see Mr Krishna Prasad who was very helpful and said that the application would be referred to the Indian Consul in Reunion for verification and then Mrs Bonne (Yogesh’s mother) could get her PIO Card which facilities Yogesh could enjoy who travels regularly to India for spiritual pursuits. He also wants to go to the ancestral villages. The visa section says the application has been accepted and a letter in that sense has been communicated to Mrs Bonne at her Mauritius address. But no such letter has been received at the Coromandel post office and somehow the application has lapsed after one month! Does he have to come back again and make a fresh application (for the third time now)? There are several cases like this where earnest seekers of their ancestry gets bogged down in bureaucratic embroilments. The authorities could help.

Otherwise the significance of a commemoration would be just a one day show. It should instead be an ongoing celebration and translated into reality.

* Published in print edition on 4 November 2010

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