In Trinidad, an Ascendant Hindu Culture Celebrates Diwali

A three-day cultural tour of Trinidad and Tobago as a guest of the prime minister replaced vacation-spot clichés with a textured view of the tropical nation's evolving identity. About half the population is decended from laborers brought from India in the 19th century to work the sugarcane plantations, and many are celebrating the Hindu festival Diwali.
Trinidad (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Trinidad (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO. What do you know about the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago? Palm-shaded beaches and mocha-skinned Carnival revelers in skimpy costumes dancing to calypso? A moonlit strand where overweight tourists in flower-printed shirts attempt the limbo after one too many rum and cokes? Taking a three-day cultural tour last week as a guest of the prime minister, these vacation-spot clichés began to fall away, replaced by a rich and textured view of the tropical nation’s evolving identity.

Port of Spain seen from Fort George (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Port of Spain seen from Fort George (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

Balmy climate, steelpan music, Angostura rum and bitters — check. But behind the stereotypes I discovered an English-speaking democratic republic with an ethnically diverse population, an oil-and-gas-based economy with an eye to becoming the Caribbean’s financial hub. The main island, Trinidad, which at its closest points is about two miles from Venezuela, has a modern airport, paved roads, cell-phone service, and too many cars. The capital, Port of Spain, is a mix of colonial-era architecture, low-rise development, and a smattering of corporate and government towers with a few facilities newly constructed to expand meeting and convention traffic. I didn’t get to the smaller island, Tobago, whose nature preserves and beaches are devoted to tourism, the second-largest employment sector after the government.

National Academy of Performing Arts in POrt of Spain (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
National Academy of Performing Arts in POrt of Spain (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

In Port of Spain I stayed in the National Academy of Performing Arts, a glass-and-steel theater and hotel complex hastily erected (by Shanghai Construction Company) to impress heads of state arriving for the 2009 Summit of the Americas. Understaffed and without functioning phones, televisions, or restaurants, the eye-catching structure is nonetheless a dramatic expression of the country’s ambitions. (And also its endemic problems: officials who oversaw the project fled amid accusations of embezzlement and are currently being sought by Interpol.)

We think of Caribbean islands as mixtures of aboriginal, Hispanic, and African people, but Trinidad and Tobago is different. Its Amerindian culture was nearly eradicated by the Spanish, who ceded the islands to the British in 1802; the colony was granted independent statehood within the commonwealth in 1962 and 12 years later became a free republic. Today much of Trinidad and Tobago’s 1.3 million citizens are of African descent, but around half the population traces its roots to India, from which indentured laborers were brought in the second half of the 19th century to work the sugarcane plantations following the abolition of slavery. The majority religion is Roman Catholicism, but more than a quarter of the population is Hindu. This statistic, unique among nations in the Western Hemisphere, is reflected in the changing political sphere.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, 59, Trinidad’s first female prime minister. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, 59, Trinidad’s first female prime minister. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, 59, the country’s first female prime minister, is of Indian descent. She and a five-party coalition called the People’s Partnership came to power five months ago, ousting Patrick Manning, whose People’s National Movement had ruled for the previous half-century mainly due to backing by citizens of African descent. Rather than emphasize the ascendancy of Indian power, Persad-Bissessar promises to make the county a successful multicultural society. Stressing “unity in diversity” she established a Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism and named as its head Winston Peters, a former calypso singer. But Indian culture has a newly prominent place on the government’s agenda.

Her government invited me and a few other journalists during the Hindu festival of lights called Diwali, which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. A national holiday, it is the country’s second largest festival after Carnival, and extends over five days in October or November. The celebrations include colorful performances of traditional Indian dance, music, and theater, Indian foods and dress, and the lighting of clay oil lamps that adorn streets, homes, and split-bamboo decorative structures.

Revelers at the Diwali festival fairgrounds in central Trinidad. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Revelers at the Diwali festival fairgrounds in central Trinidad. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

We visited Hindu attractions in the predominantly East Indian central region of Trinidad. The village of Felicity, about an hour and a half south of the capital, becomes an open-air wonderland of Diwali lights that cover driveways, walls and facades of the low-rise houses flanking the narrow streets. In nearby Chase Village we visited the kiln where potters produced the clay lamps (or deyas) used for the festival.

The “floating temple,” a Hindu pilgrimage site off the coast at Waterloo. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
The “floating temple,” a Hindu pilgrimage site off the coast at Waterloo. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

Of special interest is the “floating temple,” a Hindu pilgrimage site off the coast at Waterloo that was originally built single-handedly by a religiously inspired plantation laborer beginning in the early 1950s. Lacking funds to buy land, he opted to construct a small temple in the sea and spent 17 years on the project, reportedly carrying boulders and cement on his bicycle. He died in 1971 and the little building — accessible only at low tide — was abandoned. Later reconstructed by the government, it is now accessed by a flower-lined causeway. When I visited, smoke was rising from nearby funeral pyres where cremations had recently taken place. The temple in the sea is not Mont San Michele or Venice, but it is an unexpected curiosity and a remarkable expression of Hindu piety in the Americas.

Dattatreya Yoga Center in central Trinidad includes a huge sculpture of the Lord Hanuman. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Dattatreya Yoga Center in central Trinidad includes a huge sculpture of the Lord Hanuman. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

A few miles away on the plains at Carapichaima we came upon a striking pink palatial complex that might have been airlifted from medieval India. It is the Dattatreya Yoga Center constructed in 2003 by the Sri Ganapati Sachidananda Swamiji of India and assembled by Indian craftsmen for the local congregation. (In 1976 the swami revealed to his followers that Trinidad’s Aripo River was once a tributary of the Ganges, and that sages including himself had lived there 35,000 years ago. Who knew?) Towering near the fairytale building is an 85-foot-tall polychrome statue of the protective monkey god Lord Hanuman, the largest image of the god outside India.

We visited the home of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipal‘s grandfather, a modestly impressive building along the main street of a former plantation workers’ village. Known as the Lion House, the white brick structure, in an Indian style, has lion sculptures at either end of a balustrade above the portico. The grandfather was a pundit (Hindu priest) several of whose children rose to prominence in Trinidad.

Exhibit at Diwali festival fairground in central Trinidad. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Exhibit at Diwali festival fairground in central Trinidad. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

The Diwali festivities culminated Friday night at a fairground where the National Council for Indian Culture was sponsoring the celebration for the 24th consecutive year. An exhibit hall contained a display about the world’s Hindu pilgrimage sites, and booths advertising various Hindu centers and organizations. Outside were scores of stalls selling Indian saris, costume jewelry, handbags, cosmetics, stuffed animals, fireworks, and foods such as the national favorite “doubles,” a slurry of chickpeas and spices served on two roti breads. The crowd was estimated at 20,000 visitors, a significant portion of the island’s population.

Traditional Indian dance is part of Diwali celebrations. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Traditional Indian dance is part of Diwali celebrations. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

A stage show attended by VIPs included traditional Indian dance, musical ensembles with sitars and tabla, as well Indian pop groups. The prime minister gave a speech focused on the theme of multiculturalism, calling for the emergence of a “new national mind” based on the “values of respect and understanding.” She said, “I want Trinidad and Tobago to be the best example in the world of unity in diversity.”

She proposed teaching comparative religion, airing culture documentaries on national television, and increasing the number of extracurricular sessions devoted to mutual understanding. She also underlined the importance of the arts in fostering tolerant attitudes: “We have to engage in wider cultural activity to achieve our goals,” Persad-Bissessar said.

The wall between church and state trembled as nearly her entire cabinet joined the prime minister on stage for the singing in Hindi of the traditional Indian love song “Suhani Raat.” “We don’t actively promote conversion” to Hinduism, Persad-Bissessar had said earlier. “We respect the right to choose.” But there was a palpable sense that Indian culture now enjoyed special status in the Trinidad government. I asked Attorney General Anand Ramlogan about the significance of the Diwali festival. “People think of Trinidad as a predominantly African country,” he said. “We want to rectify this mis-perception. The majority is of Indian descent.” Previously there was “discrimination manifest in subtle ways,” he said, one of which was the allocation of state funding. He explained that the previous government gave TT$10,000 ($1,570) toward the $15-million Diwali festival, but the new administration — of which he is a part — gave $1 million.

The Prime Minister (in blue) and her cabinet sing a Hindi song at Diwali festival. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (in blue) and her cabinet sing a Hindi song at Diwali festival. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

Collectively the various sites and performances offer a unique opportunity to experience Hindu culture in the West. And that is precisely the message that the government is seeking to convey. One evening we went to an Indian-themed fashion show at the Hilton overlooking the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain. The event was a fundraiser for Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s Children’s Life Fund, which raises money to provide medical care for indigent children. I was seated adjacent to the prime minister, and during the runway show I asked her if she envisions Diwali as a second major draw to the island, a kind of autumn Carnival. “Exactly,” she replied, as sari-clad models strutted past us. “It can bring more tourists. There are many Hindus in North America, and they don’t have to go all the way to India to celebrate.” The previous government did not pay much attention to the Hindu population, she added, but her government would.

Jason Edward Kaufman
http://jasonkaufman.info

A slide show that includes some other images is at Artinfo, where this piece was first published.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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