Phooliyar Revisited: Work Site of First Batch of Girmitiyas

In the context of International Day of Monuments and Sites

The first batch of 36 Indentured labourers who came to Mauritius from Bihar through the Port of Calcutta on 2nd November 1834 by the Atlas were taken from Aapravasi Ghat Depot then known as “L’Immigration” and later “Coolie Ghat”, to work on the Antoinette Sugar Estate. They were contracted by Georges Charles Arbuthnot of the firm Arbuthnot and Co, owner of the Antoinette Sugar Estate and which also had a recruiting Agency at the Port of Calcutta on the Hooghly River. Antoinette was part of Le Piton Estate and is at present an annex of Mount Sugar Estate, under the management of Terragri ltd.

The Bihar Diwas 2016 commemorated with dignity and pride last week by the Bhojpuri Speaking Union has revived the enthusiasm of girmitiya’s grandsons and granddaughters to give force and thought to the memory of their resilience, courage, fortitude, sagacity, determination, endurance and hope. Every 2nd November and 1st February we commemorate the arrival of first batch of girmitiya contract labourers and abolition of slavery – respectively.

In 1984, the Government of Mauritius celebrated with pomp and honour the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the coming of the girmitiyas to Mauritius and the eventual settlement of the first batch of Bihar workers at Antoinette. From records in the archives the site was identified.

A National Organizing Committee was set up and in the two-year Joint Commemoration of Indian Indentures Arrival and Abolition of Slavery respectively in 1984 – 1985, many activities were held such as International Conferences, cultural activities with international and local participation. 150 delegates from India came to mark symbolically the commemoration. The official delegation was led by Zail Singh, then President of the Republic of India and the people to people delegation largely from Bihar was led by Mr. Bhagwad Jha Azad, Indian Minister of Foods and Civil Supply.

There were cultural troupes from Senegal and Mozambique too. A one-week event was organized at the original site of the Antoinette Sugar Estate with the recreation of an immigrant village and a village fair, with exhibits of tangible and intangible heritage of the village and surrounding villages. The girmitiyas in their new habitat gave the name Phooliyar to the village as the one temple they built in honour to the seven sisters or Sato Devi still standing in the abandoned village also contained a Ganesh statue called Pooleyar in Tamil. Hence the name Phooliyar. The village had long since been shifted to the other side of the motorway about a kilometre or so away as amenities such as school, water, electricity, transport were lacking at the original site. The District Council of Rivière du Rempart retained the name Phooliyar for the new village of Antoinette.

From investigation, I learnt that the descendants of the original girmitiyas also from the original Sugar Estate of Antoinette had moved over succeeding generations to some 15 villages in the vicinity including Barlow, Belle Vue Maurel, Petite Julie and others.

Lotus Monument at Phooliyar

Among the many celebrations that marked the 150 years of Indian Indentured Arrival at Phooliyar, some are indeed very memorable and poignant to the thousands of visitors and participants who flocked to the historical site:

– The putting in soil of a monument by the then young novice burgeoning artist Mrs Mala Chummun-Ramyead and currently Officer in Charge of the Rabindranath Tagore Institute. Mala Chummun worked at the concept in the form of a lotus – with 5 petals – representing the five elements of Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth as well as the five communities of Mauritius and the central/stigma representing the chimney of the sugar factory for which the immigrants had come. This monument forms part now of the Environmental Studies curriculum at the Primary Level of Education.

– The putting in soil of a Pankar plant (one of the sacred plants of the Hindus), today a huge tree, by Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Prime Minister who had inaugurated the one-week event at Phooliyar.

– The planting of a Flame Tree – Gulmohar Plant “Royal Poinciana” by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, then Governor of Mauritius.

– A fifteen-ox driven, beautifully decorated cart marriage “baraat” procession with a boy dulha and girl dulhin leading, as was the prevailing custom in the immigration period. The dulha-dulhin and the baraatis were received by Lady Sarojini Jugnauth with an aarti, at Phooliyar.

The International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) that works on preserving and conserving historical and archaeological heritage sites worldwide, decreed 18 April as the International Day of Monuments and Sites (IDMS). This idea came out of an International Conference held in Tunisia on April 18, 1982. UNESCO adopted the concept and passed a resolution at its 22nd session in November 1983 recommending the commemoration. The attention of all governments was thus drawn to possibilities of endanger of cultural heritage, and hence the commemoration.

This year’s global theme is dedicated to the Heritage of Sport as the Olympic Games will take place in Rio de Janeiro Brazil in August this year.

Traditional Games

The Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture has decided to commemorate the International Day of Monuments and Sites this year at Phooliyar on Sunday 3 April to pay tribute to the thousands of contract labour workers who were the first builders of Phooliyar. They succeeded with their toil, sweat and tears to transform the sheer barren and rocky land into one of the most prosperous sugar estates of Mauritius.

In line with ICOMOS’s theme for this year, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund is focusing its activities largely on leisure and sports of the descendants of the original Phooliyar village, with songs such as “birhas”,lalnas, jhumar, dance, food items and traditional games. The AGTF has sought the collaboration of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union in mounting some twenty items of traditional games and songs including the Oka Boka, Patang (Kite) – Tilangi, “Lathi”, “Looka Chuppi, “Lamarelle”, “and Pacchisis”,“ Citère citère”. The Children Group of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union Geet Gawai School of Plaine des Roches will perform the traditional games of gone by days as part of the cultural programme put up by Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund.


*  Published in print edition on 1 April 2016

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