Saturday, 20 October 2012

Fiji - Celebrating Ramlila on Vanua Levu

This week saw the celebration of Ramlila, a very famous Hindu festival involving the dramatisation of the life of Lord Ram, as described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana.  I've been quite interested in learning about the Ramayana, ever since I wrote a previous blog post about this when I was learning about Rajasthan. 

The Ramlila in Fiji is traditionally performed at Mariamman Temple in Fiji's second-biggest island, Vanua Levu.  Mariamman is a Hindu goddess of rain and it's interesting to see Hinduism popping up again in the Pacific ocean, many miles away from its origins in India.

India in the Pacific?

Sunset at Denarau Beach by Mark Heard
Before I started researching about Fiji, I had been vaguely aware of the fact that Fiji had a sizeable population of Indian descent, most commonly called 'Indo-Fijians' (although the terminologies used to describe this group of people are controversial).  In my mind, Fiji had a majority Indian population and formed the country's ruling elite, with native Fijians being disenfranchised and sidelined.

Now that I've done some research, I realise that it's almost the opposite situation - although the population levels almost reached parity in the 20th century, Indo-Fijians are a population in decline.  Recent political coups in Fiji have seen native islanders wrest back the reigns of power, changing the constitution to disenfranchise the 37.6% of the population that is of Indo-Fijian descent.  Not only do Indo-Fijians have no political voice in modern-day Fiji, but they also have no right to own property, despite being in Fiji for more than 100 years.

How the Indians were brought to Fiji

Indentured workers from India were first brought to Fiji by the British, from the 1870's until the practice was abolished in 1919.  They were employed in the sugar cane plantations and many were tricked into believing that Fiji was very close to India and that they would be able to return easily.  Conditions for the first Indians who arrived in Fiji were described as naraka, the Hindi word for hell.  Nevertheless, many indentured Indian workers stayed in Fiji and, not having the right to own property, they invested in businesses and made a name for themselves as a thriving economic community.

Indo-Fijians in Nadi by bluetravie
Despite the tension between native Fijians and Fijians of Indian descent, it's obvious that Indo-Fijians have become an important part of Fijian history.  Although inter-marriage between the two communities is rare, 'normal' Fijians (native and Indian) have managed to get along somehow and been influenced by each other's cultures.

A global concept of land ownership?

The current situation for Indo-Fijians is worse than ever, with many talented Indo-Fijians leaving to seek a more fulfilling life in Australia or New Zealand.  Fiji was thrown out of the Commonwealth for its racial policies and it would be a shame to see Fiji's experiment in multiculturalism fail.

In his book On Fiji Islands, the Canadian writer Ronald Wright explores the complexity of the situation in Fiji.  He compares the fate of Fijians to that of other indigenous cultures around the world, eg. in Peru and the United States.  Compared to other native peoples, Fijians compare favourably, as they have managed to retain their culture and land ownership of their own country.

Some of the people he meets in his book disagree with the native Fijian monopoly of land ownership and believe that land should be redistributed to the entire population, including those of Indian descent.  Wright's position is that 'western' solutions to Fijian land ownership are always going to be somewhat patronising.  He compares the situation with the Aborigines in Australia and Native Americans who've managed to regain some of their land, therefore redressing some of the historical wrongs of colonisation. 

Indentured labourers around the world

Fiji wasn't the only country where Indians were brought over as indentured labourers.  Many Caribbean nations have large Indian populations - I'm thinking primarily of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.  Indians now form the majority of the population of Mauritius, a former British colony in the Indian ocean and there are sizeable Indian communities in East and South Africa.  7% of Malaysia's population is of Indian descent.

It wasn't just the British who did this either - French and Dutch colonists also used Indian labour to work their colonies in South America and the Indian ocean. 

Indo-Fijian culture

Indian temple in Nadi by Mark Heard
Indo-Fijians have made an important contribution to Fijian culture - whether it's poets like Satendra Nandan and Sudesh Mitra, or well-known sport stars like the golfer, Vijay Singh.  The British singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram's father was Indo-Fijian.  Clement Paligaru is a well-known, Australian-based broadcaster, who spent his childhood in Fiji.  He's written a really interesting summary of the Indo-Fijian experience, for Lonely Planet.  You can follow him on Twitter (as I do!).

By all accounts, Indian culture in Fiji is less conservative than in India.  Some of the strictures associated with caste/social class have been abandoned and Indo-Fijians, in general, are more relaxed in their attitude towards traditional values.  Perhaps this explains the popularity of the Indo-Fijian singer, Aiysha - she sings in English and Hindi and seems to be quite popular in India, despite the fact that her videos are quite risqué!

I'm pasting in one of her videos below, so you can see what I mean - you can also enjoy the beautiful scenery in the background, a lot of which was filmed in Fiji.

Image credits:

The images of the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Hindu temple in Nadi and sunset at Denarau beach were taken by flickr user Mark Heard, who is a writer from Alberta in Canada and travelled to Fiji in 2010.  Mark has a whole series of photos on Fiji, which you see on his flickr photostream.  

The image of the older Indo-Fijian man and the young boy was taken in Nadi by flickr member bluetravie - you can see more of bluetravie's images on his photostream

Thanks to Mark and bluetravie for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 


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