In ancient times, Bihar was considered a centre of power, learning and culture. From Magadh in Bihar came India’s first empire, the Mauryan Empire. One of the world’s great religions, Buddhism also originated in Bihar. Bihar formed part of the Presidency of Awadh, Bengal, Orissa under British Raj, when thousands of Girmitias, recruited as indentured labour, were massively moved from their villages to depots in Calcutta to their unfinished journeys across the oceans. One such destination was Mauritius: the first post in the Great Experiment of contract labour workers.
The State of Bihar was separated from the other states in 1912 on 22nd March for more practicability in administration. The immense wealth of tangible and intangible cultural heritage by way of language, ways of life, dress, food, festivals, folk lore, songs and music and folk medicine, folk religion are so many connectivities that create an infinite bonding between Mauritius and Bihar.
In the long history of mobility – migration of human beings, the wave of mass migration of indentured labour stands out distinctly in the field of exploitation of human capital. Within a period of ninety years, some two million people had crossed the oceans to provide contract labour in Mauritius, the Caribbean countries, South Africa and the Pacific regions. Within this massive movement, a large number of these people originated mostly from Bihar especially the Bhojpuri-speaking belt.
What is it that makes people long to search for their roots?
After almost two centuries of separation from the mother country what is it that creates this nostalgia and search for roots?
What is it that prompted for example Alex Haley, an Afro-American writer, to undergo such a traumatic experience to pursue the search for his roots way back in the 1970s ? He undertook twelve years of research and intercontinental travel to trace his origin in Africa – in the village of Juffure in Gambia, and discover the story of Kunta Kunte his ancestor, kidnapped as a slave in 1797. What is it that incited world famous Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh to trace in The Sea of Poppies (2008) the traumatic movement of these displaced human beings through the story of a slave ship redeployed to transport Indian Indentured to Mauritius? In this, he researched intensively the Bhojpuri psyche and heritage so that his heroine is made to sing a Bhojpuri song well anchored in Mauritius in the Geet Gawai sessions of pre-wedding occasions:
Sanjh bhaile sandhya
Ghar ghar ghume
Ke mora sanjh manayo ji
In this era of inter-generational shift, 182 years since our forefathers left Bihar and other parts of India, the search for roots is a surprisingly still much desired and intense activity.
The seekers undergo immense hardships, overcome innumerable hurdles and barriers to delve deep into the pages of history and documents, and are prepared to cross the oceans and go to vastly different geographical zones, until they finally reach their roots. Yet, they continue undaunted.
Ever since Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas was established in 2003 by the Government of India and Non-Governmental Organizations like the Global Organizations of People of Indian Origin were set up, the search for roots has gained massive popularity throughout the Indian diaspora.
Chaitanand Rishi Jheengun from Canton Nancy, Pamplemousses, has revealed in a breath-catching account in his book Untangling the Knot” – Tribulations and Legacy of a Coolie, the search for his roots. This so compellingly forceful journey took him to the ancestral village of Chandapur (in the former Presidency of Oudh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa and now in Eastern UP) in 2009 and 2011 where he came face to face with his relatives. Moved by this discovery, Rishi decided to reconnect and create a philanthropic scheme to help the village of his ancestors through the setting up of a Mobile Library Project for children, distribution of school materials, financing students with their university education, setting up of a Reading and Computer Learning Centre among others.
Clinging to our Indian Roots in Bihar
Breejan Burrun well known Mauritian writer and journalist is yet another passionate Mauritian, whose interest in tracing his roots took him through a laborious collection and piecing together of historical facts and dates, interviewing of relatives and family members until he went back to the first Burrun who landed in Mauritius on 25 September 1865, on board the Hilda which took about two months to reach Port Louis at Aapravasi Ghat. His family comes from Chowsa region famous for its historical connections, in the zillah of Arrah in Bihar.
The title Breejan Burrun has chosen for his book Clinging to our Indian Roots in Bihar itself reveals the intense feelings of attachment Mauritians have for their roots.. The book will be launched by the Bhojpuri Speaking Union at the Bihar Diwas 2016.
Most people whose forefathers left the shores of India have no knowledge of their exact origin. Yet they are prompt to reply that they came from Bihar. Bihar holds an emblematic position in the collective consciousness of the people. The Aapravasi Ghat, the National Heritage Fund, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, the Bhojpuri Speaking Union, the Mauritius Archives are various institutions that have also helped create awareness among Mauritians to search for their roots.
The decision of the Government of India to extend first the PIO card to people of Indian Origin and then to make it a lifelong visa through the OCI has stimulated thousands to search further for their roots. The rich glorious history of Bihar itself connected so intimately with Mauritius through this massive passage of migrant workers for some 90 years is dimly known to most Mauritians. There have been inter-governmental and people to people connections.
The historic visit to Mauritius of Shri Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar in 2007 was a landmark event. The life size statue of Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam, Father of the Nation, stands out prominently in the heart of Patna. But for modern Mauritians, the door needs to be further opened to Bihar. Many of our compatriots are willing to invest in Bihar and other parts of India and contribute thereby in upgrading the life of their villages of origin.
On 27 March, Bhojpuri Speaking Union under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture celebrates Bihar Diwas to remind Mauritians of their rich connectivities. This commemoration is being organized jointly with the High Commission of India at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture, Phoenix.
A Note: In our last paper, reference was made to Dr. Sundeep Mata Badal as a specialist in Anesthesia from UK. He is in fact First Year Medical Resident in Anesthesia and Critical Care Medicine in Germany.
* Published in print edition on 27 March 2016