Hindus of Trinidad

 

Hindus of Trinidad

by Mira Nencheva

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Before visiting Trinidad we knew nothing about its history and its people, assuming it was somewhat similar to the history of the rest of the Caribbean islands: first inhabitants- the Carib Indians, then Columbus shows up, Europeans settle the islands exterminating the Indians, then England, France, Spain and/or Holland each rule each island for some time bringing slaves from Africa to work on the sugarcane plantations, whose descendants, after the emancipation and abolishment of slavery, make up the majority of the present day population. Of course, each island’s history has its particularities, but it is easy to find the similarities.

Thus, when we arrived in Trinidad we ware in for a big surprise. Apart from the expected black descendants of African origin, we found a whole different ethnic group, making up a big part of the island’s population, and it was not the Latinos, who are also numerous here, as the island is just 6 miles off the coast of Venezuela, but the Indians. Not the Carib Indians, of course, they were exterminated here as well, but Indians from India!

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Short History of Trinidad

Both Trinidad and Tobago were originally settled by South American Amerindians about 7,000 years ago, making it the earliest-settled part of the Caribbean. The Amerindian name of Trinidad was Land of the Hummingbird. Christopher Columbus encountered the island on July 31st, 1498 on his third voyage of exploration. He renamed it La Isla de la Trinidad (The Island of the Trinity) in the name of his three successful voyages. Here Sir Walter Raleigh begun his search for El Dorado (City of Gold) in 1595.

Trinidad belonged to Spain but as it was underpopulated, a Frenchman living in Grenada obtained a Cédula de Población in 1783 from the Spanish king and as a result free land was granted to Roman Catholics and their slaves willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown. Soon German, Italian, Irish and Scottish planter families settled on the island, bringing their slaves.

During the French Revolution slavery in France was abolished and French planters from the French Caribbean islands moved to Trinidad with their slaves, establishing communities in Blanchisseuse, Champs Fleurs, Paramin, Cascade, Carenage and Laventille. In ten years Trinidad’s diverse population consisting of mixed races, Spaniards, Africans, French republican soldiers, retired pirates and French nobility, has augmented ten times with the slaves of African origin making up about half of the total population.

In 1797, General Sir Ralph Abercromby and his squadron sailed through the Bocas channel and anchored off the coast of Chaguaramas. The Spanish Governor capitulated without fighting and Trinidad became a British crown colony with a French-speaking population and Spanish laws. New settlers from England and the British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean began to arrive. New sugarcane estates were created Under British rule and slave importation increased. But in 1833 slavery was abolished. However, the plantation owners still needed laborers. Thus, a system of indentureship which was so exploitative, that they called it “a new system of slavery”, was instituted and workers form India were contracted. Between 1845 and 1917 almost 150,000 Indians were brought to work in Trinidad on the sugarcane plantations, contracted for a period of five years, later extended to ten years, with a daily wage of 25 cents per day and a guaranteed return passage to India, which was replaced by portions of land to encourage settlement. But the new Indian settlers were subjected to special crown laws. Completely segregated and without rights, they were required to carry a pass outside the plantations, or “Free Papers” if they have completed their indenture period.

Today, in Trinidad is the largest Hindu community in the Caribbean region, a proud wealthy people. Their influence on the local culture can be seen at every turn: heavy concrete houses brightly painted purple, orange, blue, green, pink, even gold, with columns and with miniature temples in the backyards instead of sheds; with bouquets of colorful flags on thin bamboo sticks at the front door decorated with fake flowers; roti shops, Indian restaurants, and big fabric shops; numerous Hindu temples throughout the island, and even cremation sites near the sea and rivers.

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The Statue of Hannuman

Here, in Carapichaima, stands the gigantic 85 feet tall statue of Hannuman murthi, the largest statue of this monkey-faced Hindu god outside of India. In Hindu mythology, Hannuman was a fierce warrior protecting the gods from evil powers. He represents faith, friendship, strength and the willingness to make sacrifices. The statue and the adjacent temple were built as a tribute to guru Sri Swamiji, the living incarnation of the Hindu god Cattatreya, who teaches that the Caribbean island of Trinidad was in fact located in the river Ganges once, about 35,000 years ago, and therefore it has always been a holy ground and a place of Hindu prayer.

Statue of Hannuman in Trinidad

Statue of Hannuman in Trinidad

There are many people in traditional Indian attire visiting the statue of Hannuman. We are the only tourists and we feel as if we don’t belong here. A woman explain to us, that we must take off our shoes, and walk around the statue clockwise while making a wish. “Hannuman will grant you that wish.”

  A Hindu woman in front of the statue of Hannuman, Trinidad

A Hindu woman in front of the statue of Hannuman, Trinidad

Next to the monumental Hannuman we find a grandiose pink temple built in the Dravidian style of South India. Fourteen stonemasons were commissioned and came from India to create the most exquisite ornaments decorating the building, including murals, ceiling paintings and life-sized elephant statues on the entrance of the main mandir. Inside the temple there are a few smaller ones dedicated to Lord Dattatreya, Lord Siva and the Mother Goddess. We are allowed to enter, but not to photograph inside the temple.

Temple

Temple of guru Sri Swamiji

There are many Hindu temples in Trinidad, over 50, some extraordinarily beautiful, but one stands out. Literally, stands out, in the sea.

The Temple in the Sea

Sewdass Sadhu Shiv Mandir was one of many poor indentured laborers from India born in 1901 in the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges. He was brought to work in the sugarcane plantations of Trinidad for less than 20$ a month when he was very young. A hardworking man, he was saving the last penny to travel back to India every few years on a pilgrimage as he had promised god Bhajiwan. But in the 1930-s the cost of the trip became unbearable and Sewdass Sadhu decided to build his own holy place in Trinidad, by the Gulf of Paria, where the calm sea reminded him of the river Ganges.

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Sadhu begun the construction of his temple, alone, on a piece of swampy land near the gulf. He would ride his bicycle to work on the construction every day of the week, until the temple was finished. A work of art surrounded by eleven kinds of fragrant flowers, Sadhu’s new place of pilgrimage.

Object of worship near the temple

Object of worship near the temple

Only five years after its completion, the sugar company who owned the land demanded that Sadhu demolish the temple. No Hindu temple could be built on Christian land. But no Hindu could demolish a Hindu temple either. Sadhu refused and was sent to jail, as well as fined $500, more than two years’ wages, which he paid in installments. The person who eventually drove the bulldozer and erased Sadhu’s temple from the face of the earth was an Englishman, who died in a freak accident soon after that. A tree fell over him and killed him. The legend has it, that everyone involved in the destruction of Sadhu’s temple died within a year, in strange circumstances.

But Sidhu, as soon as he got out of prison, was back at the site where his temple once stood. If he couldn’t build a Hindu temple on Christian land, then he would build it in the sea.

The Gulf of Paria, Trinidad

The Gulf of Paria, Trinidad

He bought a truck and began collecting broken bricks from a nearby brick factory dumping them on the shore, day after day, load after load. Flattening them down by hand in a straight line out to sea, he inched his way into the ocean creating an extended walkway into the water. Until one day the tide rose and damaged his truck beyond repair. But he just continued working, without the truck, carrying cement and sand on his bicycle, day after day. “One man, not six men. He did that for more than a year,” a local villager remembers.

Up to his waist in the water, and with everyone saying that “the sea will wash away everything”, Sadhu built not just a temple, but an entire prayer complex, with three mandirs, a kitchen, a dining room, a restroom and another room with a verandah running around the whole thing.

Waterloo Sea Temple, Trinidad

Waterloo Sea Temple, Trinidad

As soon as it was completed, the temple in the sea became a place for pilgrimage and admiration for locals and visitors from every corner of the world. But after the death of Sadhu in 1970, the temple fell into disrepair, until 1994, when it was restored and reconstructed.

Cremation site near Waterloo sea Temple, Trinidad

Cremation site near Waterloo sea Temple, Trinidad

Today The Temple in The Sea at Waterloo, perched on its small man-made island out in the Gulf of Paria facing the sunset, is once again a place of worship and a monument to the spirit of a remarkable man.

The sea, like the river Ganges, is calm and the wind is sleeping when we stop by the temple. Smoke from an open cremation site by the shores is drifting towards the Gulf of Paria. The place is deserted, except for a few stray dogs and an old Hindu man. “If you eat meat, you cannot enter inside the temple” , he says.

Maya and Mira walking to the Sea Temple

Maya and Mira walking to the Sea Temple

* Read about Trinidad’s petroleum and natural gas industry and our visit to Pitch Lake here.

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Trinidad, The United Stated of The Caribbean

 

Arriving in Trinidad and Visit to the Pitch Lake

Chaguaramas, Trinidad

Chaguaramas, Trinidad

We start for Trinidad in the early afternoon exiting the cozy little anchorage at Secret Bay, Grenada with a sudden squall. 35-knot puff full of rain pushes us from behind just as Fata Morgana makes her way through the narrow channel between the reefs. But it lasts only a few seconds. We release the pressure in the sails and ride it. Then everything is back to normal. We sail south; the wind is coming from east at about 20 knots, the regular trades.

Soon darkness descends. We take turns at the helm, Ivo and me, every 2-3 hour. We sail all night watching the radar and the AIS closely for any more sudden squalls and for other vessels. Trinidad is an island just a few miles off the coast of Venezuela and we have heard many horror stories lately about pirates boarding boats, robbing and even killing their crews. Pirates from Venezuela. Everyone has told us to be very careful sailing in these waters.

When a small fishing motorboat starts heading directly towards us full speed in the middle of the night Ivo wakes me up worried. I only have time to hide my most treasured possessions- the computer in the oven and the photo camera under the sink, in case pirates will be boarding us. The fishing boat approaches us very quickly, flashes a strong light in our direction and two men wave at us. We wave back. They keep going. We keep going. We are safe.

A few hours later we see two glowing spots in the distance behind the horizon, natural gas platforms. We are in the Hibiscus Gas Field, 30 NM off the north coast of Trinidad, the country’s main gas field. The coastal waters around Trinidad and Venezuela are rich in oil and natural gas thanks to which Trinidad and Tobago, the leading Caribbean producer of oil and gas, is also one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the Caribbean, listed in the top 40 of the 70 High Income countries in the world. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the Caribbean. Since 2011 Trinidad and Tobago is no longer in the list of Developing Countries.

We pass very close to one of the gas platforms sticking out of the sea illuminated like the Empire State Building. There are a few big tanker ships roaming about and they make us feel safe, not alone. It’s only a third of the distance left, less than 30 NM. Soon we will arrive.

The tall rocky shores of Trinidad slowly emerge from their slumber with the first light of dawn. Seabirds are already busy skimming the waters for breakfast. The wind dies. The channel between the small Monos Island (The Monkey Island) and Trinidad, with tall rock walls on both sides and affected by strong tidal currents, is notorious for its lack of wind, impossible to sail through. In the times before the engine, ships would wait for long periods outside of the channel for wind before being able to sail across. Eventually, they built a land road linking the north shores of Trinidad with the main ports on the south shores so that the ships wouldn’t have to wait for days outside the channel.

If the timing is right, a boat can ride the tide and go through the channel very slowly. But we are out of luck. The tide is in the opposite direction and the only choice left for us, after struggling for an hour outside the Boca de Monos, is to turn on the engines and motor for about 4 miles.

We arrive in Chaguaramas, a busy commercial port with lots of weird-looking yachts. It’s also the dirtiest anchorage we have ever been to (and we have spent time in Rio Dulce, Guatemala and in Luperon, Dominican Republic). But we love it! The bay is calm, surrounded by tall cliffs covered in vegetation. We are soon overwhelmed by the sounds of birds. Parrots fly overhead screaming, pelicans rest on the sidebars of the anchored boats, herons like statues wait near the shores, and flocks of black vulchers like dark kites patrol the skies. The mornings are spectacular with the water still like a mirror.

Anchorage in Chaguaramas

Anchorage in Chaguaramas

After a day of rest we grab a small minibus to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, and we are left completely surprised by the city and by Trinidad in general. We honestly didn’t expect to find a rich country with huge highways, shopping malls, and giant residential houses.

Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, depending almost entirely on the petroleum and gas industry with tourism and manufacturing in second and third places, has transformed the country into a regional financial center with a growing trade surplus. There is an excellent infrastructure too, with an expanded international airport and an extensive network of paved roads and six lane highways. There is an excellent public bus system (one way ticket costs the equivalent of 0.20 $US), private taxis and minibuses (cost per person- 1 $US). The cost of a rental car for a day is 25 $US and the fuel prices are ridiculously cheap. You can drive all day and spend less than 5 $US for fuel…

Oil pumps, Trinidad

Oil pumps, Trinidad

So we share a rental car together with our good old Aussie friends Caryn and Mel S/V Passages (we call them the Caramels) and our first destination is Pitch Lake on the far southwestern corner of the island, about 100 km from Chaguaramas. It’s an epic car ride. We experience traffic jams around the big cities, which amuses us, as we haven’t been in a traffic jam for years! At one point we take a “short cut” to avoid the traffic and we end up driving on a dirt road through forests and fields. Driving through the island is the best way to see a big portion of the countryside and residential areas. We are amazed at the massive colorful houses the people of Trinidad live in.

The "short cut'

The „short cut’

Finally we get to the lake. It’s raining. There is a park service providing information and guides for a small fee, but the lake is not private, there is no entry fee and guides are not obligatory.

The Pitch Lake near la Brea area in Trinidad, once considered to be the 8th wonder of the world, is the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world covering about 95 acres and is reported to be 75 m deep, although its depth is impossible to measure and confirm. Its original name was „Tierra de Brea“ or the „Land of Tar“ and pitch is just an archaic English word for tar, or emulsified asphalt.

Mel and the guide

Mel and the guide

The first inhabitants of the island, the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, believed that the Pitch Lake was created by the gods as punishment and had the power to swallow an entire tribe if they ate humming birds, because humming birds were the souls of their ancestors.

Maya walking on top of Pitch Lake

Maya walking on top of Pitch Lake

In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh „discovered“ the lake of black gold and began caulking his ships with the tar, proclaiming it „most excellent good“, and much better than the tar being used in England. He even brought some of the black gold home with him, where they paved Westminster Bridge for the opening of Parliament. Unfortunately the raw pitch melted in the sun and everyone and everything that passed on the road got “caulked”.

Today, tar from the La Brea Pitch Lake is being used to pave streets with high grade road asphalt in Trinidad and Tobago, all the Caribbean islands, and in over 50 countries including the USA, England, India, Singapore, Egypt, and Japan.

The lake is being mined by Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago and asphalt is being exported to many parts of the world, mainly China. It is estimated that at current rates of commercial extraction there is enough tar to last for 400 years.

Pith Lake Mine

Pith Lake Mine

We walk across the hard surface of the lake. It almost feels as if we are walking on a huge abandoned apocalyptic parking lot overgrown with patches of grass. The hard surface of Pitch Lake is made of separate plates of semi-solid asphalt similar to the tectonic plates of Earth’s crust, in constant slow motion. Where they meet soft petroleum seams and lubricates the shifting plates, supplying sulfur to the ribbons of water that section up the lake. The local guides call these soft parts „the mother“.

Our guide is showing us the soft parts of Pitch Lake

Our guide is showing us the soft parts of Pitch Lake

Our guide tells us some incredible stories. How a guy once fell in a soft spot and almost died. His girlfriend ran to the village to call for help. They pulled him out of the tar, took him to the hospital and saved his life. He also explains that nothing from the outside can stay forever inside the lake; the tar eventually spits it out. Hundreds of years old fossils of trees and all sorts of objects have come out of the lake. The lake is boiling in small motion and objects emerge from the bubbles.

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He also complains that the roads and houses near the lake crack and sink, as the entire La Brea region is unstable due to underground fissures or fingers of asphalt and volcanic activity.

Another interesting fact is that a study of The European Space Agency‘s exploration of exposed hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan, discovered that microbes live and breed beneath the surface of the tar in the lake. A discovery that may one day help answer the question whether or not life exists on other planets.

Ivo touching the skin of the monster

Ivo touching the skin of the monster

A walk on Pitch Lake is a unique journey, like nothing we have experienced before. We are like ants treading upon the black wrinkled skin of a huge dark monster slumbering under the tropical sky, breathing ever so gently.

We try not to disturb him. In the pools of rainwater accumulated at its edges, covered with water lilies, swim tiny fishes, fresh snacks for the white egrets roaming around, stepping gently, like thieves.

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