Sunday, October 22, 2017
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Bonds across the oceanGood God: As 50 per cent Mauritians follows Hinduism, idols of gods and goddesses are a common sight

Bonds across the ocean

Mauritius retains an indelible impact of large-scale migrations from India in the 19th and 20th centuries. The island nation has consequently epitomised the vibrancy of a composite culture. At every step, it is dotted with towering idols of Durga or Shiva or small shrines of Hanuman that adorn most house fronts22 Oct 2017 | 2:09 AM

In face of a concerted anti-slavery movement by British public, ongoing since the end of the 18th century, the Slavery Abolition Act was eventually passed by the Parliament in 1833.

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Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

In face of a concerted anti-slavery movement by British public, ongoing since the end of the 18th century, the Slavery Abolition Act was eventually passed by the Parliament in 1833. It outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. Colonial ingenuity, however, quickly overcame dismay at impending shortage of hands by putting into effect the Great Experiment. Whereby a contracted workforce from certain colonies was hired and shipped across the globe to meet the shortfall at others. It commenced with the plantation colony of Mauritius, an acquisition wrested from the French in 1810, with workers procured from China, Malaysia, Africa, and Madagascar. The largest chunk would ultimately come from India.

On November 2, 1834, following nearly two months on the high seas, the first group of indentured migrants from India sailed into the Trou Fanfaron harbor at Port Louis. Agreements bound the new arrivals to laboring at sugarcane estates for ten long years; five, if they wished to return at their own expense. By the time the Indian Legislative Council ended indenture in 1917, not less than half a million Indian workers from Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra had disembarked at the Mauritian capital. Some came on their own volition, hoping to escape abject poverty back home; others by deception and coercion. The majority chose to stay on after 1917, impacting forever the tiny island-nation’s history and demographics. Today, approximately 70 per cent of Mauritians claim Indian ancestry. 

Mutual ancestry  

Recognising its social and cultural importance, Apravasi Ghat, the site in Port Louis where the migrants would land, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2006. The complex includes a multi-media museum and vestiges of depots and sheds that once housed living quarters and offices. The interpretation centre is named after Beekrumsing Ramlalla, a prominent public figure who first chanced upon the remains of the landing site, and was instrumental in calling for the proper preservation of Indo-Mauritian ancestry records. It was at his behest that a remembrance ceremony was initiated on November 2 in 1970. In 2003 it was declared a national holiday to mark Arrival of Indentured Labourers Day. The Apravasi Ghat is today a popular attraction with visitors, and within walking distance of other sites like the Blue Penny Museum, Central Market, and Le Caudan Waterfront. Stores, eateries and cinemas here are a delightful mélange of Indian, Creole, African and European offerings. 

Faiths of all hues 

Religious diversity is protected by the constitution which prohibits religious discrimination and provides for the freedom to practice or change one’s religion. Hinduism is a major religion with nearly 50 per cent Indo-Mauritians as adherents, followed by 26 per cent Christians and over 17 per cent Muslims, while Buddhism is also practiced by a section of Sino-Mauritians. Temples, churches, mosques, Chinese and Buddhist shrines dot the landscape in equal proportion. 

At the time of my visit to Ganga Talao aka Grand Bassin in southern Mauritius, finishing flourishes were being applied to a towering scaffold-wrapped likeness of Goddess Durga. Across the road loomed a trident-bearing Lord Shiva, with a height of 108 feet). The idol of the goddess that was being readied for its inauguration following Durga Puja festivities in September-end, is said to be the tallest world-wide. A crater lake ringed with ebony woodlands in Savanne district, Ganga Talao has been a hallowed destination for Hindus since 1898. A lakeside temple honours Shiva as Mauritius Eshwarnath; a Hanuman temple crowns a hillock; a host of other deities sit along the embankment. Hanuman also finds place of prominence in homes; his pedestal shrines, flanked by red flags, practically adorn most house fronts. 

Common culinary heritage 

The culinary traditions of Mauritius are perhaps the best example of its cultural assimilation. Bustling local markets reveal abundance in fresh seafood, tropical fruits and exotic vegetables of every conceivable shape, size and colour. A hotpot of Indian, French, Creole, Chinese, and African influences, it is the local cuisine that truly and most flavourfully blends this diversity. Regardless of where you are — in a village, on the beach, near the waterfront, at an attraction — you are within hailing distance of any number of vendors dishing out delicious street-treats, mostly vegetarian, from pushcarts, trucks, kiosks, and bicycles. 

Soft flatbreads prepared with chickpea flour or wheat flour, both dhal-puri and roti chaud are smeared with rougaille, a much-loved tomato paste, and served with gros pois (butter beans) curry. Freshly pickled fruit and vegetable achaars are another favourite and usually served with rice or roti. Tiny Victorian pineapples sprinkled with chilli flakes and salt are the rage in titbits. Deep fried snacks called gadjacks could include anything from samosas with potato or fish fillings, to di-pain frire, somewhat akin to a bread pakora, to arouille (yam fritters). Boullettes are chicken or shrimp dumplings served in a broth; mine frites is another popular Chinese meal on the go — soya-sauce doused fried noodles topped with chillies and spring onions. Among beverages, alouda tops the charts, a sweet gelatinous drink made with agar agar, basil seeds and strawberry or vanilla-flavoured milk. 

That said, by no means are these the only indicators of Mauritius’ harmonious ethos, so evident and so lightly worn. It spills over into most everything — art, craft, music and festivities included. Sega has the island on its feet and cheering as much as Bhojpuri hit song ‘Langaroo’ does! As things stand today, there are lessons to be learned from a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean with which we share ties many centuries old.

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