East Indians in Trinidad - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The overwhelming majority of Indian indentured laborers considered themselves Hindus, but most of them were from rural, unsophisticated backgrounds; they left theological questions to the priesthood, which had, in fact, relatively few representatives with real knowledge. Furthermore, Trinidad East Indians were cut off from communication with India until well into the twentieth century, and so had little knowledge of the changes taking place in Indian Hinduism. For most Hindu East Indians, therefore, the practice of their religion entailed making offerings (in some cases, animal sacrifices) to guardian spirits and to divinities at shrines and small temples, along with observing calendrical holidays and events such as Diwali (a festival of lights) and Holi (also known as Phagwa; a springtime festival of play and singing). In addition, pujas (ceremonies involving prayers, offerings, and a celebratory feast) were sponsored by families on birthdays or to give thanks for good fortune.
Almost from the day the first immigrants arrived in Trinidad, Christian missionaries sought them out. Some East Indians were converted to Catholicism and some to evangelical sects, but the Presbyterians of the Canadian Mission were most successful, particularly because they alone, among Christian groups, built schools in some of the new Indian settlements. Nonetheless, the majority of Hindu (and Muslim) East Indians did not turn away from ancestral religious practices.
There has been a great resurgence in interest in religion among both Hindu and Muslim Indo-Trinidadians. Trinidad-born disciples of the Swamis who came in the 1950s have become influential in the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and have risen to leadership in India-derived sects, such as the Divine Life Society, and in the movement that accepts Sathya Sai Baba, a holy man of Bangalore, as an incarnation of divinity. Muslim organizations, such as the Sunaat-ul-Jamaat, have fostered stricter religious observance and the building of mosques. Hindus have contributed to the construction of new temples throughout Trinidad, and the ornate and costly yagna —seven days of readings from sacred Hindu texts and celebration—has become extremely popular.
Religious Practitioners. Few of the Brahman priests had much training beyond what was imparted by their fathers. Non-Brahman East Indian attitudes ranged from full pious acceptance of Brahmanical authority through reluctant acceptance for want of alternatives. By the 1980s, new movements had emerged that permitted individuals (usually men) other than Brahmans to serve as religious officiants.
Even in the early years of Indian presence in Trinidad, there had been religious officiants other than Brahmans among castes considered (in India) too "low" or "polluted" to be served by Brahmans. To protect their communities from illness and other misfortune, these men annually sacrificed goats or pigs to deities such as Kali. Despite Western education and Hindu reform movements, animal sacrifice continues, particularly among the poorer Indo-Trinidadians, and some of their beliefs and traditional practices have emerged in the form of new religious movements.
Ceremonies. Most Indo-Trinidadian Hindus observe life-cycle rites at birth, marriage, and death and sponsor pujas at special occasions such as the building of a house or the celebration of a recovery from a life-threatening illness. There are calendrical events in which most members of the community participate and, for some, weekly services at the temples.
Observant Muslim Indo-Trinidadians attend weekly services at one of the many mosques to be found on the island; many mark yearly calendrical events and adhere to traditional Muslim practices such as daily prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan. One Muslim calendrical event—known in Trinidad as "Hosein" or, more popularly, as "Hosay"—has been co-opted by non-Muslims and even non-Indians into a version of Carnival, much to the resentment of pious Muslims.
Arts and Medicine. The indentured Indians brought with them many of the folk arts of rural India, for instance the making of simple pottery for domestic and religious needs and of crude, painted-clay religious statuary. A number of simple musical instruments are still in use, and accompany, along with the ubiquitous harmonium, traditional hymns. Indian cinema has influenced music, wedding costumes, and much else in Indo-Trinidadian life. In more recent decades, because of increased travel and the influence of television, East Indian young people, like their their Afro-Trinidadian counterparts, are greatly attracted to contemporary Caribbean, European, and U.S. popular music. A number of Indo-Trinidadian writers, most particularly V. S. Naipaul, have achieved world renown.
Few traditional Indian medical practices survived for very long in Trinidad (midwifery being the only significant exception). By the middle of the twentieth century, most East Indians chose to go to a Western-educated doctor when ill.
Death and Afterlife. Most Hindus—although they believed in reincarnation—tended to leave theology to the priests, preferring to concentrate on observing the appropriate rites at the death of a family member. Until the mid-twentieth century, this desire was impeded by laws in Trinidad requiring burial in cemeteries and prohibiting cremation. Few Hindu East Indians, however, erected gravestones or revisited the graves. Muslim and Christian Indians observed the mortuary, burial, and commemorative practices of their respective faiths.