POPULATION: 43 percent of Fijian total
LANGUAGE: Fiji Hindustani (Fiji Hindi); English
RELIGION: Hinduism; Islam; Christianity
Most Indo-Fijians are the descendants of indentured laborers brought to Fiji during the nineteenth century by the British. In the system of indentured labor, workers (who had been moved to a new country against their will) were forced to perform a job for little or no pay until they earned enough money to buy their freedom. The system was created to provide cheap workers for British colonies after the abolition of slavery in Britain and its colonies in 1833.
The first indentured laborers from India arrived in Fiji in 1879 and the indenture system lasted until 1916. Other immigrants from India arrived in Fiji in the early twentieth century, and they opened small shops in the coastal towns. The Indo-Fijians are part of the south Asian diaspora (a community of ethnically related displaced peoples) that includes the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, Trinidad in the Caribbean, Guyana in South America, South Africa, and North America.
The Fijian archipelago (string of islands) is located in the western Pacific Ocean. The climate of Fiji is tropical with plenty of rainfall, sunshine, and high humidity. The largest islands within the 800-island group are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The vast majority of Indo-Fijians reside on Viti Levu.
Today, Indo-Fijians make up around 43 percent of the total population. Before the military coup of 1987, Indo-Fijians made up close to 48 percent of the total population, but about 5 percent have moved to Australia, Canada, and the United States. In the 1960s, Indo-Fijians outnumbered the indigenous Fijians.
The overwhelming majority of Indo-Fijians speak Fiji Hindustani, or Fiji Hindi. This language developed out of contact between speakers of different dialects of Hindi/Urdu (one of the native languages of India) and their bosses on the colonial-era sugar plantations. Although Indian laborers could communicate fairly well, they had some difficulty at times being understood. Over time, a unified dialect emerged. Since then, it has become the language of Indo-Fijian identity.
The folklore of the Indo-Fijians derives from traditional Indian folklore. Important epic stories and myths such as the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata are read, chanted, and recounted by Indo-Fijians at ceremonies and celebrations. The epic drama of Rama and Sita is performed at most religious festivals.
The Indian laborers brought their religions with them to Fiji. Hinduism and Islam both exist on Fiji today, alongside Christianity and traditional forms of Fijian religious practice. The majority of the indentured laborers moved to Fiji were Hindu. As a result, Hinduism is the major religion among Indo-Fijians.
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, meaning Hindus believe in a variety of gods. Each god has specific characteristics, functions, and powers. There are sects that are devoted to the worship of a particular god and shrines are created to provide offerings. These practices continue among the Indo-Fijian communities in Fiji and abroad.
Major holidays for Indo-Fijians center on the religious calendars. Hindus celebrate Diwali (the festival of lights) in early November and Holi (a festival of singing and light-hearted play). Families also sponsor pujas, which are ceremonies that include prayers, offerings, and feasts. Pujas take place on birthdays and other special occasions when it is appropriate to give thanks for good fortune and blessings. Muslim Indo-Fijians observe the fasting and prayer practices during the month of Ramadan. Other secular holidays include the Queen's Birthday, Boxing Day, and Fiji Day.
Indo-Fijians perform rituals at important transitional stages of the life cycle: birth, marriage, and death. The exact nature of these rituals is dictated by the religious faith of the families involved.
The standard greeting in Fiji Hindi is namaste. This greeting comes directly from Hindi as spoken in India.
Dating was unknown among unmarried Indo-Fijians until late in the twentieth century. In the past, marriages were always arranged; this practice continues, but dating has been accepted. Interracial dating among Indo-Fijians and Fijians is disapproved of by both groups. Indo-Fijians do have dating relationships with other groups on the island, however, such as Europeans.
Fijian law dictated that non-Fijians could not live in Fijian villages. This law made for segregation between the Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Indo-Fijians had to create their own communities or move to the coastal towns. These would later become centers of commerce and trade that would provide for the economic prosperity of the Indo-Fijians.
Western-style housing made from concrete blocks or wood is the preferred style of housing for Indo-Fijians.
Many jobs in Indo-Fijian society are traditionally done by males only. Musicians, religious leaders, and cooks for public functions like weddings and pujas (worship ceremonies) are almost always men. Male children are usually preferred over female children. Male children are also usually given much more freedom and independence than females.
In most traditional societies of India, marriages are arranged by parents. In some cases, the couple has no say in the matter. In recent years, this system has become less rigid and couples have more choice in their selection of mates. Male offspring generally inherit the majority of their parents' property and are expected to divide it among themselves.
Indo-Fijians men have worn Western-style clothes for some time now. Some women, however, still wear the traditional sari (a garment of draped cloth). Older women in particular only wear saris. Indo-Fijian women wear a lot of jewelry.
Indentured Indian workers brought their styles of cooking and some of their food crops with them to Fiji in the nineteenth century. Roti, a staple bread served with every meal, and rice and curry, a hot spice, are the basis of Indo-Fijian food. Roti is used like a spoon to scoop up pieces of food and rice. Tradition requires that only the right hand be used when eating. The left hand must remain in the lap.
Formal education for the children of indentured Indian laborers in Fiji did not begin until 1898. Schools were then opened by Catholic and Methodist missionaries who also opened mission schools for Fijian children much earlier. Indo-Fijians stress the importance of education with their children and many go on to complete advanced degrees at universities and colleges in other countries.
Traditional music and film are both important among Indo-Fijians. Almost all of the entertainment that Indo-Fijians enjoy is produced outside of Fiji. The Indian film and music industries provide the latest hits from the most popular film and music stars of India. Most shops carry a wide selection of cassettes and videos, along with imported Indian foods. Traditional music and dance are also performed.
After the period of indenture, Indo-Fijians began to specialize in certain occupations. First, they took over the growing of sugar cane, a vey important cash crop. With the wealth from this they branched out into transportation, and also were in charge of most of the craft and retail trade.
Although they held little land, the Indo-Fijian population acquired control of the Fijian economy. This situation was a source of hostility between Indo-Fijians and Fijians. It ultimately led to the 1987 miliary coup. The majority of Indo-Fijians who left following the coup were shop owners and other retail merchants and bankers.
Cricket is a popular spectator and participant sport among Indo-Fijians. Other sports that have large followings in Fiji, like rugby, are not as important to Indo-Fijians.
Traditional south Asian forms of entertainment, including classical forms of music and dance, are enjoyed and practiced within the Indo-Fijian community. Music and dance academies have also been established by the Indo-Fijians that have left Fiji and moved to Sydney, Australia.
Rural folk arts accompanied the south Asians who came to Fiji as indentured laborers. On the plantations, however, there was little time for the production of painting and sculpture. Pottery production and the painting and sculpting of religious images for local consumption was minimal during the early stages of Indo-Fijian history. Nowadays, religious images and other Indian products are imported directly from India.
Indo-Fijians still face difficulties living in Fiji. Although relations between the Indo-Fijians and Fijians have improved since 1988, there is still resentment and anger on both sides. The coup adversely affected the tourist industry, which has not regained the ground it had prior to the coup. The flight of Indo-Fijians after the coup resulted in the loss of over one-third of the nation's doctors, one-half of its lawyers, and a great number of teachers and nurses.
Mayer, Adrian. Indians in Fiji. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Siegel, Jeff. Language Contact in a Plantation Environment: A Sociolinguistic History of Fiji. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.