Of the Ramayana and Ram Leela among Indian Indentured Labourers

Reflections on the Mauritian intangible cultural heritage

“History is both a form of memory and a discipline that draws on memory as source material. Today some of the most productive discussions about the nature of history are pursued in this area…Social memory or collective memory refers to the stories and assumptions of the past that illustrate or account for key features of the society we know today…”

— John Tosh, ‘Memory and the Spoken Word in ‘The Pursuit of History’

In January 2013, former President Kailash Purryag made an emotional and historic trip to his ancestral village in Bihar, India. On that special occasion, some of the talented villager artists gave a vibrant rendition of Ram Leela or the story of Ram which served as a symbolic reminder to the Mauritian President that one of their lost sons had returned home to Bihar where the kingdom of Lord Ram once existed.

The enactment of the Ram Leela is also an important tangible example of the special cultural and historic bond between Mauritius and the Indian Subcontinent. It also epitomizes passage through the Aapravasi Ghat of  the more than an estimated 468,000 indentured and non-indentured men, women and children, bringing along  their intangible heritage. These were namely their languages, cultures, religions, culinary heritage, stories, riddles, popular games and traditions taken from India to their new home in a small British colony in the southwest Indian Ocean. Therefore, Ram Leela exemplifies this transfer of cultural traditions from Mother India to Mauritius. This forms part of the ‘Ramayana consciousness and heritage’ which exists in Mauritius since the mid-19th century or for more than 160 years.

This fact is important when looking at Mauritian history and the history of the Aapravasi Ghat or the Immigration Depot and of the Indian indentured labourers. After all, the Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed under UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s criterion 6 which deals with the intangible heritage of a particular people and place. Ram Leela is a key example of this intangible heritage and it is important to remember that in 2005, UNESCO declared Ramleela a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible heritage of the world.

A few years, Pandit Arun of the Ramyana Center explained in Mauritius, the public readings of Ramayana and the popular enactment of the Ram Leela “have been a constant source of inspiration and strength to the Indian Diaspora, in particular amidst Indians who were lured away to the colonies, such as in Mauritius, in the nineteenth century to work in the sugar cane field. It allowed them not only to face the harsh conditions but also to keep their culture alive. This Ramayana consciousness continues to this day among Mauritian Hindus’.

It is evident that Pandit Arun accurately describes the impact which this ‘Ramayana conscious’ has had among Hindu Indo-Mauritians. After all for more than a century and a half, it has lived and prospered through the public enactments of the Ram Leela and public and private readings of the Ramayana in Mauritius. Ever since their early arrival in Mauritius between the mid-1820s and late 1840s, some of the Indian immigrants brought with them knowledge of the Ramayana and even in some rare cases brought a copy of this ancient Indian epic.

This fact is clearly illustrated today through a copy of the Ramayana dating from the 1840s and written in the Kaithi script of north central India. It belonged to an Indian immigrant from Uttar Pradesh and was donated to be put on display at the MGI Folk Museum. Furthermore, as early as the late 1840s and 1850s, W.W.West, a British planter and several other Franco-Mauritian planters reported that on some of their sugar estates there were “schools” for the children of immigrants where they were also taught some of their religious texts such as the Ramayana, and enacted famous stories from Hindu mythology such as the story of Rama or Ram Leela.

The pioneering work of Nundall, immigrants Servanin and Rungassamy

Between the l830s and 1840s, there are hundreds of immigrants who came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other parts of Indian who were literate and semi-literate. Many among them are known as the ‘early pioneer Indian indentured workers’ who by the mid-19th century and after managed to leave estate labour and achieve some measure of social and economic mobility, and obtain some rudimentary education.

They were sirdars, job contractors, labour overseers, small independent land cultivators, small landowners, small business owners and skilled workers who became the pillars of the indentured and ex-indentured Indian and Indo-Mauritian community in the rural districts. They became “the community leaders” , or the social reference points for the indentured and ex-indentured workers on the sugar estates and in the newly-emerging small hamlets and villages and other areas,  where Old Immigrants were purchasing land, squatting or getting settled beyond the perimeters of the sugar estates.

It was through the actions, the funds, the decisions and the organizational capacities of these successful early Indian immigrants who played a key role that as early as the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, the Ramayana was being read and chanted and Ram Leela was being enacted on some of the sugar estates, hamlets and villages such as in Grand Port, Flacq and Riviere du Rempart and also in other rural districts. How do we know this?

Essentially through fragments of archival documents from the National Archives, MGI Archives and the National Library, a study of the life stories and experiences of some of these outstanding and forgotten Indian indentured workers and the family stories/oral family narratives and their private documents which bring to light the contributions of some of these important immigrants.

Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, in all the eight rural districts, there were important Old Indian immigrants who clearly showed that one man can make a difference in this transmission of cultural heritage and traditions from the Indian immigrants to the first, second and third generations of Indo-Mauritians. It is essentially oral traditions which serve as the vehicle for this transmission, perpetuation and preservation of these important aspects of their intangible cultural heritage. Who were some of these outstanding and unsung heroes of the history of indentured labourers and their settlement of Mauritius as they went from sojourners to settlers?

During the 1890s, Sirdar Nundall, the son of Nunlall and my great-great-grandfather, a Bihari immigrant, established a bhaitka in the estate camp of Labourdonnais Sugar Estate. It was one of the first places in Riviere du Rempart district where the Ramayana was being read on a weekly basis and the Ram Leela was enacted four times per year by children of the Indian immigrants. Sirdar Nundall helped to establish the tradition of the Ramayana reading, chanting  and Ram Leela in Labourdonnais, Forbach and Cottage during a period of more than 30 years.

During the mid-19th century, especially among the majority non-literate immigrants, Ram Leela was one of the important forms of entertainment. Between the 1860s and 1890s, in Grand Port district, Immigrant Rungassamy from Tamil Nadu and Immigrant Servanin of Kerala, two job contractors and small planters, encouraged their fellow countrymen to uphold and observe their religion and traditions. They arrived in Mauritius in 1839 and 1836 respectively. They established bhaitkas on the sugar estates of Union Vale, St.Hubert and Beau Vallon and brought pundits to encourage the reading of the Ramayana. Over a period of more than 30 years, they encouraged the children of the immigrants and Indo-Mauritian boys to hold the Ram Leela twice to thrice per year. They are two former indentured immigrants who pioneered the tradition of reading the Ramayana and the Ram Leela in Grand Port or the south of Mauritius.

The major contributions of immigrants Dharamsingh, Callee, Viramen in propagating Ram Leela

What about the other parts or districts of Mauritius? Between the 1840s and 1890s, there were hundreds of immigrants who came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telugu districts, present-day Maharashtra, Kerala and other parts of Indian who were literate and semi-literate. Some historical sources and oral traditions in Mauritius shows that some of these literate immigrants read and narrated stories from the Ramayana and encouraged the enactment of the Ram Leela. Immigrants such as Dharamsingh, a Brahmin from Bihar, who was a sirdar, was literate and arrived in Mauritius in 1835. Between the 1850s and 1880s, he established several bhaitkas in southern Flacq district at Bel Air-Riviere Seche, Olivia, Grand River South East and La Louise Sugar Estate. Over a period of more than 30 years, he funded schools for Indian children and encouraged the enactment of Ram Leela. It becomes evident that ever since the mid-19th century, the seeds of Ramayana consciousness and the tradition of Ram Leela had already been sown and gradually established in rural Mauritius.

During the second half of the 19th century, Flacq was not the only Mauritian district where the enactment of the Ram Leela was encouraged. Between the 1850s and 1890s, there was Immigrant Callee in the district of Savanne in the estate camps of Bel Ombre, Chamouny and near the village of Souillac. He arrived as a skilled worker from Orissa in 1837. During more than 40 years, he encouraged the performance of Ram Leela in some of the estate camps and newly established Indo-Mauritian villages.

For his part, Immigrant Viramen or Veeramen arrived in Mauritius in 1838 at the age of 45 as a sirdar from Madras, India. He was classified as a “Malabar” who was from the district of Madurai in the Madras Presidency. Viramen was semi-literare when he arrived in Mauritius and worked as a sirdar for ten years and then became a job contractor for Trianon Sugar Estate. Between the 1860s and 1880s, he encouraged the immigrants of Trianon and those in nearby settlements such as Moka and Saint Pierre villages to observe their religion and cultural traditions such as Ram Leela and storytelling. During the same period, he became a small sugarcane planter and set aside some land close to Trianon where he built a bhaitka for some of his fellow ex-Indian indentured workers. He died in 1885 at the age of 92.

In Mauritius, through oral traditions and family genealogies it is possible to discover how immigrants such as Dharamsingh, Callee and Viramen were able, to a certain extent, to promote Ram Leela and Ramayana consciousness among their fellow indentured workers, their children and grandchildren at the grassroots level in different districts of Mauritius.

 

  • Published in print edition on 18 September 2015

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