Mauritius – The Land of the Ramayana

Mauritius is renowned as the land of the Ramayana. When the girmitias arrived in Mauritius as from 2nd November 1834, they brought along with them the verses of the Ram Charit Manas and the Hanuman Chalisa in handwritten and published versions as well as in oral forms. Over the years, a typically Mauritian brand of Ramayana chanting has evolved, giving Ramayana in Mauritius a distinct tradition, over the last 180 years.

The Ram Charit Manas written in Awadhi and a sister language to Bhojpuri is ingrained in the Hindu consciousness throughout the Hindu diaspora particularly of the former plantation colonies: Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, South Africa. In Mauritius as elsewhere in the plantocracy, it was to the Ram Charit Manas that the indentured Indian workers turned to in moments of hardship, humiliation, oppression, repression and suppressive atmosphere of the harsh conditions of the colonial period.

The new and old waves of indentured immigrants have not only told and retold and enacted the traditional Ram Kathas and Ram Lilas but innovated by creating and recreating their own new stories based on the surroundings where they built solid and resistant pillars of sacred spaces.

Marich Desh or TAPU

A phenomenon that developed around the depots at the Port of Calcutta by the Hoogly River is that of the mythical story of Marich Desh culled out from the Ramayana. Marich Desh became a symbology associated with the traumatic experiences of crossing the Kala Pani.

Pahlad Ramsurrun has in his Folk Tales of Mauritius retold the story of “The Birth of the Pearl Islands” which according to him he had heard from his mother. In this story, the corpse of Marich, the magician who had created the illusion of a deer in the Ramayana to lure Sita and being killed by Rama turned into pearls which consequently Ram threw to the South (of India). The pearls were swept away to the Indian Ocean after a fierce cyclone and grew into small islands of the Mascaregnas, Mauritius being one of them was Marich Desh. This story became embedded in the minds of successive waves of migrants and as with all oral lore was recreated and took different versions with different story tellers at different times.

In fact, since Mauritius was the first post of the ‘great experiment’ in indentureship, at the depots of Calcutta, this colony became an archetype of the trauma of going to the far off islands – the TAPU – whether they were Mauritius, Trinidad or other countries.

Baithkas, Ramayanis and Ramayana Mandalis

With the advent of the Girmitias, baithkas were established in all estate camps and the Indian villages. The girmitias met in their baithkas and chanted the Ram Charit Manas verses to mitigate their sorrows and humiliations.

It was the nightly chorus chanting of the Ramayana on jhal and dholak which served to give sustenance and vitality to their morbid life, enabling them to face the challenges of the next day of the plantation life.

These veteran tradition bearers knew the Ramayana by heart. These Ramayanis, as they were called and are still called to this day, grew in number until the 20th century.

Focus in the baithkas of those days was laid on the ability of the students to memorise, to read and chant the Ram Charit Manas and to explain the verses in Bhojpuri. Thus it was that the ‘bartani’ was taught with the sole intention that the immigrants’ children would know the Ramayana.

The Ramayana through its main character Lord Rama enshrining Maryada Purushottam is deeply embedded in the psyche of the Hindus. There is at least one Ramayana Mandali in every village, and twenty in Port Louis.

Swami Krishnanandji’s Contribution: A Ramayana for Each House

In 1960s and 1970s Swami Krishnanandji Maharaj founder of the Seva Shivir and Human Service Trust arranged for 100,000 copies of the pocket Ramayanas to be distributed all over the island, on a house-to-house basis. There were village processions for the distribution with the singing of the verses on jhal and dholak accompanied by aarti of the Ramayana performed by the recipient.

Pandit Rajendra Arun Gives a New Interpretation

Pandit Rajendra Arun’s arrival in Mauritius gave a new dimension to the Ram Charit Manas satsangs, starting with talks on the Ramayana on the MBC Radio and then conducting Rama Kathas all around Mauritius. This momentum had led to the setting up of the Ramayana Centre in Mauritius, through a Ramayana centre Act unanimously passed in Parliament.

From time to time, Ramayana exponents are invited to give lectures on the Ramayana and annual Ramayana recitation competitions are held by several national organizations, with the participation of schools and colleges and the public in general . In nearby Reunion Island, the Ramayana ballet is performed colourfully in French to the delight of the population.

Ramayana chanting during life events

The Bhojpuri sanskar geets known as Geet Gawai, through hundreds of songs preserved since the past 180 years from the Bhojpuri belt of India make several references to the marriage of Sita, or the ideal couple of Ram Sita in captivating jhumars and are sung on marriage occasions. Sohars are sung on chattis and barhis ceremonies of birth rites, making ample references to sequences from the Ramayana.

Another characteristic of Mauritius is the tradition of Ramayan recitation on the occasion of a funeral; this practice gives solace and comfort to the near and dear ones of the departed soul to bear their anguish.

The MBCTV Radio too has broadcasted over the years regular programmes on the Ramayana either by way of ballet performances, talks, plays or musical recitals and other kirtans and bhajan sessions.

Mahabir Swami

A common sight in Mauritius is the red jhandi (flag) of Hanuman floating in front of the Sanatani Hindu houses, on a long bamboo pole pitched near Hanuman’s shrine or chabutra uttered in Bhojpuri as chawtra. The bamboo pole with a red flag is renewed annually on Hanuman Jayanti (Hanuman Day) known as “Dwaja Orahan”- changing the flag, a sign of renewal. In Mauritius Hanuman became the symbol of courage and strength for the immigrants. The Hanuman Chalisa is equally recited regularly and most Hindus know it by heart.

Ramayana Consciousness and Socio-Political Mobility

The Ramayana consciousness has thus become a significant aspect of Mauritian cultural life,.contributing immensely in the Hindu cultural continuity since the tiem of immigration. The successive generations of the girmitias in successive generations have maintained the trend, with new forms of electronic musical instruments added. The ethos of the Ramayana is a reference in all spheres of life in Mauritius, with the prevalence of good over evil as exemplified by the victory of Ram over Rawan often in public oratory.

With the tremendous socio-political mobility that Indians in Mauritius have made from the time they landed here the Ramayana’s role in the cultural life, politics, socio-religious interaction of the Hindu family in Mauritius has acted as a major catalyst as upholder of values and civilizational ethos.

This paper (modified) was presented at the International Ramayana Conference organised by the Ramayana Centre, from Friday 21 – Monday 24 August 2015

 

  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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