The Guirni Necklace: A Tangible Cultural Heritage

New Light on the Indenture Labour System

When the girmitias – indentured labour immigrants – set out from Calcutta as from 2 November 1834 on the “great experiment” that was to give them a permanent footing on Mauritius as the First Post of that historical adventure enticed by arkatias (recruiters), they were told that they would find “gold” upon turning over the stones…This is how goes the myth.

But in reality the girmitias did bring with them their jewellery and a lot in gold. This was their prized possession. Jewellery forms part of a Hindu woman’s precious collections, her solar shringars – the sixteen modes of embellishment. Gold is highly symbolical in the Hindu way of life. It is symbolic of the sun and longevity. It also symbolizes energy and vigour. Wearing gold at the time of certain rites is believed to bring immortality or long life.

The contract immigrants worked hard and during their agreement and beyond; as free workers, they invested not only in land, animals but also in gold.

They converted their savings into gold necklaces and other different forms of jewellery. The girmitia was happy to save and make jewellery for his wife. In the Caribbean this was looked upon by the “sahebs” as a waste of the country’s revenue. As the guinea gold coin was a prized emblem of possession, many girtimias converted their savings into guinea coins.

The guinea was a former British gold coin which was first minted in 1663 from gold imported from West Africa, with a value that was later fixed at 21 shillings equivalent now to the sum of £1.05. It was replaced by the sovereign in 1817. The term guinea nonetheless persisted and the old Indian immigrants as well as the new ones saw in it a mark of status. Their wives wearing a whole range of guinea coins around the neck symbolized the possession or wealth of the husband which gained him a pride of place in the community. The Bhojpurias rushed to the sonar jeweller in Port Louis with their savings to turn them into gold guirnis. The term guirni is a transformation of guinea which the girmitias could not pronounce. The term sovereign pronounced souverain in Creole came to denote the same.

The women girmitias also were very happy and proud to display their guirnis around their neck and wore them as a better safety in their insecure huts. In weddings and other festive occasions, the guirni necklace around the neck spoke of the wealth and status of the bearer and her family too.

This phenomenon was common throughout the Indian diaspora whether in Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago. They were of similar styles and patterns. The Dadis and Nanis and other phouphous handed as legacy and affection either one guirni to a child or grandchild or a whole set depending on the depth of love and attachment.

Unfortunately with the onset of modernity and craze for new fashion, many of these new possessors of guirnis dissolved them to make new modern jewellery. What a sad loss! Because guirnis form part of the Indian tangible heritage here.

However quite a good number of the present generation or fourth generation of girmitia descendents still walk around with their guirnis around their neck!

Such was the case at the launching of a multimedia application on the Guirni Necklace at the MGI on the occasion of International Museum Day and the Commemoration of the inscription of the Indenture Immigration records of UNESCO Memory of the World Register on 18th May last. The Guirni Necklace has been rightly termed “a shining heritage of Mauritius” in the MGI brochure.

The Guirni necklace is made up of a series of gold sovereigns. Fitted with a gold loop or bail the guirnis were threaded on a black cord. Now they are fitted on a gold chain. It would be indeed a great achievement if the MGI could acquire at least one guirni piece to keep among its prized collection of tangible cultural heritage in its Folk Museum of Indian Immigration.

* * *

International Centenary Celebration

of Abolition of Indian Indentured Labour Immigration

This year marks the centenary of the abolition of Indian Indentured Labour Immigration.

In India at the inauguration of the centenary celebration of the abolition of Indentureship, a system that was termed as another form of slavery at the International Conference on Centenary Commemoration of Abolition of Indenture-ship organised jointly by Indian Council for International Co-operation (Antar Rastriya Sahayog Parishad) and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and in association with Indian Council for Cultural Relations on 20 April 2017 in New Delhi, Shri MJ Akbar Indian State Minister of External Affairs did emphasize the need to revise and review the Indenture system history. New materials are being unearthed from the dusty archives to tell us that the denuded peasantry and the famine which is supposed to have led to massive indentureship of labour from Bihar and Eastern UP – Gangetic Plains, was possibly a man-made occurrence. He stressed that “this part of history should reach the present day consciousness, how to recognize and unveil this big fraud”.

Similarly there have been a series of celebrations at international level to mark the centenary of the termination of Indian Indenture system, whether in Trinidad and Tobago on 17 March at Divali Nagar Chaguanas, or in Guyana in March 2017.

This sensitization regarding the centenary of the abolition of Indian Indentureship will indeed mark a new insight into our recent history, the enormous contribution of Indians in the development of their adopted homelands, the generational shift and the need to inculcate in academia and the younger generation new awareness and research into girmitia family archives.

Similarly last week at the “Guirni Necklace” function, Mrs Soorya Gayan, Director General of the MGI threw out the idea whether labour migration was a new form of slavery? Or that the girmitias were not as destitute as was made to believe! New research has to be carried out, she stated.

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