Hindus of Trinidad
by Mira Nencheva
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.