The Legacy of Indian Indentureship In the Caribbean 1838 – 1920

Established writers such as Brinsley Samaroo, Maurits Hassankhan, Lomarsh Roopnarine, Clem Seecharan, Ron Ramdin, Bridget Brereton, Kusha Harracksingh and Radica Mahase have written extensively on the historical perspectives of the Indian indentured immigration system between India and the Caribbean and the trials and tribulations of girmitya life on the sugar estates of the Caribbean. They generally agree on the modus operandi of the British Raj in the recruitment, transportation, dispersion and settlement of indentured immigrants in the Caribbean.

Only 20% returned to India at the end of their indentureship, while 80% made the Caribbean their new home. Most of those time expired immigrants settled near the estates they once worked on as they were generally re-employed on the same estates. As they settled on the fringes of the estates, new settlements, Indian settlements emerged as their reliance on religion gradually gave way to cultural, social and economic realities. Because of the limitations of estate life when they lived on the estates as indentured immigrants, their socialization with the wider society was limited, almost nonexistent. They were seen as birds of passage. They were a part of the larger society but lived apart from it. As they moved off the estates, they interacted with the wider society but faced numerous difficulties and was forced to fall back on the memories of their Indian homeland for survival.

That was a common thread throughout the Caribbean, particularly in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. In falling back upon their primordial instincts for survival, they re-created in their new homelands conditions that were similar to their original homeland. They created a parallel system of culture, socialization, economics, politics, religion, and agriculture in their new settlement communities, which facilitated the creation of a new identity in their new homelands and ensured their survival. In time, those settlement communities affected several aspects of Caribbean life in such as flora and fauna, spirituality, music, songs dances and politics among other areas of life.

This paper traces the development of parallel Indian settlements in the colonies of Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago where there were sufficient numbers to maintain the culture. It also examines the absorption of the Indians in colonies such as St. Lucia, Jamaica, Grenada and the French Antilles where the relatively small numbers of Indians rendered a significant cultural retention a serious challenge. The paper concludes that with the creation of their new alternative “Indo-Caribbean” identity, East Indian indentured immigrants contributed to the changing Caribbean landscape with their introduction of Indian food, religions, culture, flora, fauna, economics, politics and socialization.

Throughout the world, ethnicity continues to be a central feature in social foundations and commonplace collective actions. This is particularly true of such post-colonial Indian indentured Immigrant Caribbean societies as Guyana (238,909), Trinidad and Tobago (143,939), Suriname (34,304),[1] Jamaica (36,412), St Lucia (4,350), Grenada(3,200), St Kitts (337) and St Vincent (2,472)  where between 1838 and 1917 over 500,000 Indian indentured immigrants were domiciled (Samaroo, 2011:248).

  They originated from agricultural and labour sectors of the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions of North India, with a relatively lesser amount conscripted from Bengal and other south India areas. Approximately 85% were Hindus while 14% were Muslims.

The Indian indentured immigrants came to the Caribbean from the opposite side of the globe with very profound and divergent differences in language, social customs, religion, dress and music. While they came from the same country, India they held differing perspectives on regional differences, where they were going and their tenure in their new country of residence in the Caribbean.  The methods in which European planters executed the Indian indentured contractual requirements had an unfair outcome in influencing the communal attitudes between the ethnic groups in the colonies. For example, Indian indentured labourers were calculatedly kept away from the rest of the society, namely the ex-slaves (Africans, Chinese, and Portuguese) both geographically, socially and culturally. The planters stereotypically portrayed the ex-slaves as poor workers, lethargic, reckless and frivolous.  East Indians, on the other hand, were considered hardworking, compliant, submissive and controllable. The East Indians soon espoused the planters’ negative views of the ex-slaves who in turn saw the Indians as miserly, violent (domestic violence), taking bread from their mouths (preventing them from bargaining for higher wages) and heathens for not accepting Christianity and western ways. The propagation of these stereotypes between the two major groups had the desired effect, as far as the white planters were concerned, of keeping the groups apart. That separation also helped to keep them from uniting with the ex-slaves and demanding higher wages from the planters. The coloureds and ex-slave group consisted mainly of African, Portuguese and Chinese, but the stereotype ex-slave mentality was aimed mainly at the ex-African slaves.

By analyzing the historical relationship between the coloniser, the Indian indentured immigrants and the ex-slaves, we can trace the roots of the legacy of the Indians and the impact they had on the various Caribbean islands in which they were domiciled. 

It is noteworthy that with the culpability of the plantation owners, the ex-indentured immigrants Indians were encouraged whether passively or otherwise to take up residence in plots “loaned” to them or rented to them by the estates or sometimes they were encouraged to continue living on the estates. In Trinidad and Guyana, the planters also used their influence with the Governor to allow Indian settlers to occupy adjacent Crown lands free. So, while the time expired contract-indentured workers were encouraged to live in close proximity to the estates and could pursue their own agendas, the planters were happy to have them close by as additional labour, especially as seasonal workers at crop time when additional hands were needed on the estate. This reassurance to live close to the estates encouraged the development of small villages around the estate peripheries and as those grew, they became known as settlement communities referred to by outsiders as Indian settlement communities. Some adventurous ex-indentured Indian immigrants, not wishing to return to the estates, relocated further afield in forested and grassy or swampy areas becoming coal burners, rice planters and gardeners and creating in the process their own small settlement communities.

In those Indian settlements, the ex-indentured immigrants bonded together because of their shared values, ethics, cultural similarities, religion, dress and social life. This bonding together because of their commonalities created strength and cohesiveness within their evolving society. In developing their ‘exclusive’ Indian settlements, they unwittingly formed a barrier between the white colonial planters and the freed ex-slaves who vented their ire on them. That fracturing, however, helped to structure and shape the lives and pathways of the Indian immigrants and their descendants on the islands, perpetuating the division between the two ethnic groups.

The indentured Indian immigrants held India as their cultural and spiritual home and that helped them to shape and keep their identity alive even on the sugar estates. At the end of their indentureship, at least 80% of them made the Caribbean their home, yet they did not sever ties with India. In most cases with the coming into being of their settlement communities, those ties were strengthened by the share cohesiveness of the new communities, and their willingness to subsist in a hostile land. They were in survival mode in a country they had chosen to be their new home. Many of the push and pull factors forced them to look inward and in so doing revived the memories of their identity in India which they transplanted to the new land.

Indians, in the larger evolving communities, turned inwards for self-protection, preservation and to find meaning to their existence in those colonies. They re-created parallel communities based on units from their jahaji bundles (the real and the imagined jahaji bundles) with their own systems of sustainability, economic activity, culture, language, food, flora and fauna.[2] They practised their culture from memory and over time converted it into “Indian culture” in the Caribbean that affirmed the historical memory they had brought with them because many of their memorialized practices were informed, validated, influenced or reinforced by their local communal settings. This linkage to the homeland gave them the strength and courage to continue along the path they had consciously chosen, creating in that evolutionary process new cultural meanings from what they had brought from India in their jahaji bundles. That legacy, associated with their new environments, was passed on to future generations.

The free Indians were becoming a force to reckon with.  Nanlal Ramcharan, basing his interpretation upon stories he heard from his parents and on his own observations indicated that by 1920. “From what I came to know of my own and what my parents and grandparents told us ‘Their culture was of foremost importance to them. They did not want to give up their culture, their way of life, the way of living, their language and most of all their dress and so they kept more to themselves and only went into the town whenever they had to purchase supplies or attend to a legal matter. They developed their own means of self-containment and survival and there were very few things that they purchased in the town centres. Transportation was difficult to get out from where we lived and so they only went to Cunapo (Sangre Grande) for supplies such as oil, pitch oil, salt and flour. They grew most of what they ate -bodi, seime, carille, pumpkin, seasonings, corn, rice, dhal (urdhi, pigeon peas etc.) and Cassava.” [3]  In this way, they avoided contact with Afro Trinidadians and developed their parallel communities. The same could be extrapolated for Guyana, Suriname, and some of the other Caribbean countries.

Because of the rejection they faced from the outside world, the Indians sought to become self-sustaining and in the process became a force to reckon with as they developed their parallel societies. They were rejected by the wider society, so they established their own parallel societies, and in doing so they kept alive their own unique memory of India among themselves through their songs, music, dances, religion and other aspects of life and living. Those people, the indentured immigrants, had a long civilizational history that followed them around and their memorialized history was responsible for the creation of their new homes in the new lands. In addition, that history helped East Indians to reconstitute aspects of the old homeland in the Caribbean. In the re-creation of their new homeland, the new cultural environment and the natural landscape were contributing factors to the early identity that East Indians created in the Caribbean. Their isolation and their rural residency allowed them the chance to create new cultural settings based on existing cultural and religious realities. They had dotted the landscape with jhandis, temples, mosques and had kept alive their songs, music and dances. 

For the rest of the society, they were often seen as a closed community ‘doing their own thing’ and were therefore regarded not as part of the society, but as birds of passage who would soon return to their original homeland. They were seen as different, not belonging as they spoke Hindi and all their practices were different from the ex-slaves. They were separate and different, but they considered themselves part of the country. They had chosen to make the new territory their homeland and as such began to put down their roots and those roots spread to other parts of the country outside of their parallel societies. Soon identity markers emerged that helped to solidify the community against the onslaught from the ex-slaves and westernized values.


In the case of East Indians in the Caribbean, their identity formation was both a reaction to a hostile environment and a primordial fall back on their identity. Individual or group identity it must be noted is different to the idea of national identity and with East Indians in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname there was by the 1920s a wide schism between individual and group Indian identity and the national ideal of identity. Despite the schism that seemed to exist at that time, major groups within the Indian community and many Indians too held the view that it was quite possible for East Indians to hold on to their ethnic identifications while being compatible with the national identity of the nation to which they belonged. The freed Indian indentured immigrants preferred to build that identity around factors that related to their original homeland and this did not, in any way, negate the fact that they were part of the new society or that they were unpatriotic to the nation.  (……………………..)

Moving from the state of being indentured immigrants to free persons living in their settlement communities was an event of enormous proportions that took them from survival mode, through identity formation to existence; and by the commencement of the 20th century to integration mode. Nanlal noted that this last part of the journey of integration into the larger westernized society was fraught with the danger of losing their identity and so the majority was very sceptical about giving up their identity to become part of the wider national community. He noted that the pundits and the panchayat played a major role in this ‘protection of the identity’ as they felt that too much integration into western society ‘ills’ as they called them would cause them to lose their gods, their goddesses, their modes of worship, the East Indian dress, the Indian instruments and their ‘original’ music and dances and with it, their Indian identity. He further noted that in some villages with which he was familiar the panchayat had threatened to remove from the village a few young persons, – young Indo Trinidadian females – who had taken to wearing western clothing in public. He could not recall if any of the threats were actually implemented but noted that it was sufficient to warn the young adventurous Indian females to wear clothing approved by their parents. In another instance, he noted that his father urged on by the pundit, indicated to him that the panchayat had also threatened the ‘removal from the village’ anyone who had become a Christian.  In the village, there were three Christian (Presbyterians) at the time who were the only literate people in the community and to whom the people turned to whenever any legal matters had to be dealt with or  letters had to be written to the authorities.

Identity markers

Identity markers for the Indians in the Caribbean could be divided into two categories: material and non-material. Among the important material or physical identity markers the following standout: religious symbols such as temples, mosques and jhandis, flora and fauna and nonphysical markers such as Bhajans, qasidas, pujas, and festivals such as Divali, Phagwa, Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha other markers such as songs, music and dances, cuisine and other markers.

The Jahaji Bundle

The Girmityas brought with them their physical necessities in the jahaji bundle. However, they brought with them two jahaji bundles: one, the physical jahaji bundle, the other, an imagined jahaji bundle (in their memory). Out of the physical jahaji bundle, they planted seeds, wore their dress, read from the Scriptures and played instruments among other physical attributes that they brought with them from India. From the imagined ‘memory jahaji bundle’ they re-created their Indian comfort zone in the settlement communities in the Caribbean countries where they were domiciled. Striving to achieve their imagined community, they created Indian style houses (thatched and mud-walled houses), the extended family settings, social practices (caste system, panchayat and weddings), entertainment in the form of songs, dances and music, economic activities, agricultural systems and other aspects of life and living. This was the labourers’ answer to the rejections they faced from the larger society. They created a semi self-contained parallel Indian settlement community for their survival where their children played games such as gabbadi. The labourers wore clothing consistent with their Indian identity and established societal standards in each community through their own quasi-local governmental system – the panchayat.

Chadee (personal communication ) noted that these quasi-governmental panchayat systems had the force of law as they were recognized by the magistrates.  By the 1920s, the panchayat was still in force in several Indian communities. Chadee noted that often, when matters were brought before the magistrate, they were sent back to the panchayat for determination and the decisions of the panchayat were brought to the notice of the magistrate through a translator appointed by the court for such purpose. Generally, the magistrate accepted the rulings of the panchayat and the matter was settled according to the labourers’ traditional systems with concurrence from the magistrate.[4]

While many of the unsavoury aspects of their society were broken down and lost during their depot stay, sea journey and indentureship periods, some unhealthy practices reared their ugly heads.  As the Indian settlements became established, the labourers’ focus turned towards not just surviving but learning to bridge some of the gaps between themselves and other communities in the land of their adoption. It was during this period that some of the unscrupulous caste practices took root as some of the Brahmins staked their claims to societal leadership and gradually forced and reinforced their position upon the society.

Jahaji Bhai

Those labourers who came on the same ship developed a sort of ‘brotherhood of the boat’ and lifelong ties and they described each other as Jahaji Bhai or Bahen (brother or sister). Nanlal mentioned that to describe someone as Jahaji Bhai was to evoke lifelong sentiments of loyalty and togetherness. That bond was a lifelong pledge that transcended caste and religion and generated a high sense of cultural loyalty to each other for generations that followed.[5]

Flora and fauna

Another aspect of their legacy that has changed the topography of the Caribbean is the flora and fauna they bought with them in their jahaji bundles. Some of the plants brought by East Indians to Trinidad included: religious plants such as sandal (Santalum album), suparie (Areca catechu), Khus khus (Chrysopogon zizanioides), Peepal (Ficus religiosa) and banyan (Ficus benghalensis) tulsie (Ocimum tenuiflorum), Ashoka(Saraca indica), bael (Aegle marmelos), dhatur (Datura stramonium) and paan (Piper betle); medicinal herbs such Tumeric (Curcuma longa),neem (Azadiracta indica); edibles such as sahijan (Moringa oliefera), lauki (Lagenaria Siceraria), sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) , bodie (Vigna sesquipedalis), seim (Lablab purpureus), sesame (Sesamum indicum), mango (Mangifera indica) and carailee (Momordica charantia). and rice (Oryza sativa); and flowering plants such as gaindah (Tagetes patula).

Those plants have spread far beyond their Indian settlements. For example, by the 1920s, the mango, which was brought to the Caribbean by the indentured immigrants, could be found growing in almost all Caribbean territories. In addition, the sahijan (Moringa) and neem plants brought to the colonies during that period had survived and by the 1920s was found in several colonies including Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Curacao, Guadeloupe, Jamaica and Grenada. Today the sahijan is considered a miracle plant and is heavily sought after for its medicinal properties.

These plants, a legacy of the East Indians, have dotted the landscapes of the Caribbean territories and the Caribbean landscapes will never be the same. While many East Indian plants continue to be seen as important identity symbols for East Indians today, many “Indian plants” such as mango, melons, cucumber, Ashoka, banyan, pomegranate and sapodilla have become an integral part of the Caribbean landscape and scarcely any non-Indo-Caribbean person thinks of them as Indian identity symbols.

 East Indian food

By the 1920s, Indian culinary practices that were introduced in the Caribbean Indian settlement communities had spread beyond their borders to other people who took notice of their food items, plants and other aspects of their culture, until, eventually, it became part of the national psyche.

Many of their culinary items such as roti (Indian bread), dhal (legumes), chokhas (smashed vegetables such as tomato, aloo [potato], baigan,) and talkaries (curried vegetables such as bodie, seime, mango, aloo and channa), were very popular amongst the Indian populations in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname. These dishes remain popular and today, are also consumed by members of the wider population.  Many Indian foods in Trinidad have evolved into popular local Indian street foods and can be purchased in many parts of the country today.  Some of these include roti, katchorie, poulourie, saheena, aloo pie, doubles, baigani, and Indian sweets such as jalebi, kurma and barfi, which are all very popular Indian foods in other Caribbean countries, Canada and the USA.

The struggle to retain an Indian identity through foods was a very difficult and torturous one for East Indians in Trinidad. East Indian foods were at the bottom of the cuisine ladder in the country and were the source of ridicule for many East Indians. They were taunted by non-East Indians with slurs such as “dhal-belly Indian,” “bhajie Indian” (without strength), and demeaning jingles like “coolie coolie come for roti, all the roti done.” Later, as the popularity of Indian foods grew, many enterprising East Indians, with shop and parlours, found they could earn extra dollars from the sale of East Indian foods, particularly snack foods such as kachori, aloo pies, doubles, roti and saheena. It is noteworthy that the legacy of Indian foods handed down to future generations at the end of indentureship has grown in popularity over the years and many, such as roti and doubles have become national dishes.


Dress, as part of the cumulative consequence on identity, must be viewed and recognized within the social and cultural contexts that formed the individual’s environment. It is noteworthy that the dress was seen before any conversation was initiated in social or other encounters. It, therefore, assumed a definite priority over any discourse in the establishment of identity, as the clothing that people wore and the way they dressed sent a message to the onlooker long before any conversation took place.  Therefore, within a society, particularly a multi-ethnic one such as the Caribbean, the types of dress worn by East Indians communicated meanings to others that were, for the most part, disseminated based on their cultural and religious environments, the social setting and the extent to which the past was brought to bear upon the present. By wearing their ‘Indian dress’ there was the creation of cultural affinity, identity and cultural authentication of the group focus. Craik suggested that by the way we use or wear our bodies to present ourselves to our social environment, we also map out our codes of conduct and send messages to our audience in terms of who we are and our identity (Craik, 1994:5).

Clothing for East Indian immigrants in the Caribbean was a visible form of cultural memory and identity and was used to construct a code of visibility that contributed to their sense of identity. This codified construction of identity by East Indians created a visible front, which was the initial self that was presented to others. It created a partial cultural face and aided in the positive construction of their identity that not only served as the basis for continued cultural commonality among themselves but also was a bond by which they made a strong collective statement of identity in terms of their past, their present and their evolving future in the Caribbean.

Their dress was one of their main identity symbols. During the indentureship period East Indians adorned themselves with clothing such as dhoti (a loincloth originally worn by Hindu men in India); kurta (an Indian long loose garment like a shirt worn without a collar and falling just below the knee); pagree (a turban); ghangri (a long dress worn by early indentured immigrants); jhula (long loosely fitting blouse); orhni (East Indian head covering or veil); jama-jora (Hindu bridegroom outfit and  jewelry and make-up items included bera (wrist bangle); churia (bracelet); ghungroos (ankle bells for dancing); kaanphool (type of earrings); nakhphool (a nose ring); sindoor (vermillion); kaajar (a type of Indian mascara) and bindi (dot on forehead of Indian women).East Indian dress survived beyond the end of indentureship and as identity issues became national issues in Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica and Suriname, their dress became more popular among East Indians. Today, it is common to see, for example, Indo Trinidadians wearing kurtas, saris, shalwars and other Indian outfits to Indian religious and socialoccasions.                                                                  


The labourers played musical instruments such as dholak (type of Indian drum); tabla ( pair of Indian drums); harmonium (an organ-like keyboard instrument); sitar (Indian stringed instrument with six or seven metal playing strings); bulbul (a stringed instrument played on keys like a typewriter); dantaal (iron rod struck by “u” shaped piece of iron); jhanj ( large traditional Indian cymbals used in playing tassa) and mandolin (a musical instrument of the lute family, with four to six pairs of strings stretched over a fretted neck ). They also played the majeera (a pair of small hand brass cymbals); tassa (a one-sided drum played with two sticks and usually worn around the player’s neck) and bansuri (Indian flute). These instruments have survived beyond indentureship and are still popular today in the Caribbean. In addition, their folk songs (wedding, birth, Phagwa and Divali songs) have also survived to the present and have spawned a new genre of music called Chutney and Chutney Soca Music that has become very popular in the Caribbean, a legacy of the Indentured Indo-Caribbean people.  

Baitak Gana/Tan singing  and Chutney music are based largely on Bhojpuri folk songs brought to the Caribbean by the Indian indentured  immigrants this type of singing has evolved from his traditional roots –Baitak Gana in Surinam, Tan singing (tent singing in Guyana and Indian classical singing in Trinidad- to a new form of singing popularly called chutney singing in the Caribbean with some of its offshoots being chutney soca, chutney brass, chutney parang and the chutney Kaiso. This type of Indo-Caribbean music, a musical crossover style that brings together elements of Indo-Caribbean music and other Caribbean influences yet retaining an Indian flavour, demonstrates the dynamism and syncretism of Indo-Caribbean popular music. Some of the notable names associated with this form of singing include Ramdeo Chaitoe and Dropati (Baitak Gana, Suriname), Shyam Yankaran, Yusuf Khan (Classical Singing Trinidad), Ravi B, Omardath Maharaj, Rikki Jai, Drupati Ramgoonai, Rakesh Yankaran and Sundar Popo (Chutney Singing —Trinidad). While the classical Indian songs were done in Hindi the chutney songs were done in Hinglish (a mixture of Hindi and English) or entirely in English. Some of those songs used filmi music as its base structure. These songs may be considered a legacy of the indentured immigrants who came to the Caribbean as they can be traced back to their original songs.


Some artifacts found in common use among East Indians included items such as goblet (an earthenware jug); dhekhi (Indian rice threshing tool); chulha (earthen fireside); simta (type of Indian tweezer); jaata (Indian stone mill); taawa (Indian flat iron); sil and lorha (stone tools used for grinding seasoning); ookhri and moosar (mortar and pestle); jharoo (Indian broom); peerha (small wooden bench); Jhopri (Indian house covered with carat leaves); kholoo (homemade cane mill) and lotah and tharia (brass vessels used for eating or for ceremonial purposes). Some of these such as the chulha, taawa, jharoo, peerha and lotah and tharia have survived to the present and are seen in regular use by Indo-Caribbean persons as a continuing of the legacy of their Indian ancestors who came to the Caribbean.


The East Indians came from different parts of India and brought their various languages with them but over time develop their own localized language generally referred to as Hindi. In Surinam, the language came to be called Hindustani or Sarnami while in Guyana it is referred to as Aili Gaili (broken Hindi) and in Trinidad as Bhojpuri. Hundreds of Hindi words relating to Indian cuisine and  social language (Neemakharam, Karma, pundit, roti, guru, phoulourie) have found their way into the national languages of the various Caribbean countries and remain a legacy of the Indian indentured immigrants to these parts.


One of the enduring legacies of the East Indians in the Caribbean, particularly in the larger countries, is the retention of Hindi and Islamic names and surnames (such as Singh, Khan, Ali, Samaroo), and the names of places in India (Calcutta, Patna, Fyzabad) transferred to locations in the Caribbean. Name changes occurred in the smaller territories because of the pressures for assimilation and their introduction to Christianity was of the indentured immigrants lost their original names or some were changed very early for example:

Ghai became Guy Edwards (taking the name of his employer)

Ravinsingh became Robinson

Tulsi became Tulcey

Sita became Sita Jacobs (taking the name of the  employer)


Indian indentured immigrants introduced their religious practices into the Caribbean and that legacy has remained with us to the present time. It includes Hinduism and Islam. The Indian in the Indian Diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean seemed to mimic the India of their memory during indentureship. Essentially, during their indentureship and in their parallel societies they celebrated from memory their festivals and religious events such as what they called “full moon Katha.” They recalled from memory the dates, the rituals and the mantras (prayers) that were recited for those occasions. In essence, their practices, of worship and songs and rituals, were based mainly on their own memories and often the dates, the rituals and the mantras were incorrect since it was based purely on memory with no corroboration. Similarly, they held Phagwa and Ramleela on dates not quite correct in the reckoning. Those corrections would come after the first decade of the 20th century when closer ties with India emerged with the visits of Indian missionaries to Caribbean countries. But whether the mantras or the rituals were correct or not they were very important identity markers for the Indian indentured immigrants. Their presence has given the Caribbean, particularly Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, a unique multi-religious and multi-cultural flavour.


From drawings on the crudest walls and buildings to modern air-conditioned temples and mosques, those places of worship have come a long way dotting the landscapes of the Caribbean. Their temples, their mosques, the jhandis have dotted the landscapes of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana Suriname, Jamaica, Martinique and Guadeloupe and forever changed those landscapes and people’s perceptions of East Indians in these communities and remain important legacies of Indian indentureship and Indian religious identity markers.

Jhandis are triangular flags placed on green bamboo poles and planted near Hindu homes and temples in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands. Prea Persaud argues “jhandis… are not just a religious symbol but an identity marker that indicates the presence of Indo-Caribbeans. Indo-Caribbeans use jhandis as both a proclamation of their faith as well as a way to combat what they view as attempts to erase their culture and history”( Persaud, Prea, 2016. Web. [09/03/18] )

In Hinduism, Hindus (in India) use murtis or representations of God in their various modes of worship. When they came to the Caribbean as indentured immigrants few of them brought any murtis with them. When they did pujas, the jhandi flags were substituted as a representation of the Divinity they worshipped. For example, a red flag represented Hanuman and a white flag represented Surya (the sun). Those jhandi flags were usually buried about 10-15 inches deep at the front of the homes. In time, they gained new significance as an identity symbol for Hindus, signifying the home of a Hindu and were found across the country. What started off as a docile attempt to represent the gods they worshipped, over time became identity markers for Hindus across the land. The planting of jhandis at the front of Hindu homes is a Caribbean phenomenon since in North India where many of the indentured immigrants originated; jhandis are planted only near temples. This is a legacy handed down by generations of Hindu-Indo-Caribbeans to their descendants.

 The Muharram Festival

Indian identity in the Caribbean has long been associated with festivals such as Divali, Ramleela and Muharram. Mainly freed ex-indentured immigrants in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname celebrated Muharram, a festival associated with Shia Islam during the time of indentureship. Although it is associated with Islam the majority of its followers in Trinidad, for example, were Hindus who formed the bulk of participants and assisted in performing the Muharram rituals during the celebrations. It was one of the larger Indian celebrations observed during the indentureship period and it was an identity marker and a legacy of the East Indians in the Caribbean. In addition, Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha are also celebrated in the Caribbean.


With time, the emergence of these communities saw East Indians staking claim to be recognized as part of society. That eventually led to the establishment of Indian pressure groups such as Indian newspapers, magazines, handbills and leaflets among other paraphernalia that sought to identify identity issues.

The schism that was created between the Indian indentured immigrants on the plantations on the one hand and the ex-slaves and the coloureds, on the other hand, continued to the end of indentureship and throughout the 20th century and was played out glaringly in the political life of the larger countries of Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname after independence. Through the political shenanigans in these territories, there was always an interplay for power between the Indo and the Afro dominated political parties. That scenario created two opposing camps thirsting for the spoils of political power with each sometimes-taking turn at the wheel, according to the poll count. Yet this political distrust is a legacy from the colonial days that has been handed down from one generation to the next and would continue for the foreseeable future in these Caribbean countries.

This division was perpetuated throughout the years because of distrust and animosity between the two groups, and that distrust and animosity can be traced all the way back to the white colonial masters. While it was in their interest to keep the Indians and ex-slaves apart for fear that they would unite and create havoc and seek higher wages, the damage they did to the relationships between these two groups has continued to the present time and that is one of the legacies of the early indentureship period handed down to later generations.

 The continued schism was exacerbated by the Afro ex-slaves and coloureds view: we were here before you, this is our land, and we have a right to this country. We built it. You just came. You are interlopers. Birds of passage. Why don’t you go back from where you came? On the other hand, the Indo-Caribbean felt he or she had equal rights to the country in which he or she lived just like anyone else. They felt they were also citizens of the country, part of the British Empire. The same can also be extrapolated for Guyana and Suriname. But later, despite the earlier problems the Indian ex-indentured immigrants faced, many facets of East Indian life became integrated with the wider society in some Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and to a lesser extent in Jamaica and Guadeloupe.

The legacy of Indian culture and identity in the smaller Caribbean countries

In other smaller countries of the Caribbean such as Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Belize and the French colony of Martinique where there were smaller numbers of Indian indentured immigrants the smaller Indian minorities were unable to survive even in small parallel communities except in parts of Jamaica, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Essentially, because of the large numbers of ex-slaves living in those communities and still working on the estates, the Indians could not resist the pressures of group cultural assimilation to the larger Creole population in those territories. In addition, the paucity in the supply of Indian women in the smaller colonies made interracial marriages a reality, and a consequent loss of Indian religion and culture. Like the ex-slaves before them they fell to proselytization (conversion to Christianity) and with conversion, they lost all sense of identity. By the 1920s, many facets of the indentured Indian culture and religion that had survived in the larger colonies were almost lost in the smaller colonies where only remnants of some facets of the culture and religion survived in small pockets. However, not all was lost because in those smaller colonies many aspects of the flora and fauna that the indentured immigrants brought to them had survived. For example, by the 1920s, the mango and sapodilla had spread throughout the islands and few people thought of them as having an Indian origin. Nevertheless, generally, there was a loss of Indian identity in the majority of these are smaller colonies due mainly to their small numbers and the aggressive proselyting activities of the churches in those colonies.

In St. Vincent for example while 90% of the arrivals were Hindus they were faced with aggressive proselyting by the Christian churches and most were baptized with a change of name which was a passport to education for their children. The Wesleyans’ were very successful in this respect of converting Hindus and was later joined by the Seventh-day Adventists who made inroads into the Indian areas. Loss of religion equalled a loss of name and culture. Although converted, some remnants of their value systems and the way of life persisted in small communities in Georgetown, Park Hill, Rose Bank and Argyle Estate in terms of arranged marriages, weddings and certain funeral rights. They continued to exist and by 2000 there were some 6000 Indians living in St. Vincent.  With the formation of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Indian Heritage Foundation in 2006, there was a return to roots.  Many St. Vincent Indians have re-discovered their Indian identity and have realized that being a Christian does not prevent them from reclaiming their Indian identity.

Similarly, in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Belize, St Kitts and Nevis and other Caribbean countries, where Indians were domiciled there has been a rapprochement to their search for their Indian roots and identity beginning with the 1975 Indian Diaspora Conference held at UWI in Trinidad and subsequent such conferences held throughout the Caribbean. In addition, cultural exchanges, Indian Arrival Day celebrations and the advent of the Divali Nagar have encouraged this continued search for their roots. In Belize, for example, the formation of the Corozal Organization of East Indian Cultural Heritage has given a big plus to Indians there in their search for their Indian identity.

Indian jewellery, Indian dance, curry goat, callaloo Bhajiee, roti, Hosay, Indian Heritage Day, Bombay mango and ganja have all found their place in the national arena of Jamaican life. Ganja (marijuana), which was introduced to Jamaica by the Indian indentured immigrants, has now become an integral part of the life of the Rastafarians and smoking ganja is considered a spiritual tradition among members of this group.


Ethnicity, or ethnic identity, was a major factor in determining the shape and form of the larger Caribbean countries, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname in which the East Indians were domiciled. The British policy of assimilation did not work well with the Indians in the Caribbean as they turned to two major controlling aspects of their being for survival: their Indian primordial identity instincts and their self-adaptive articulations, which enhanced their collective position within the overall society.

The schism created by keeping these two large groups apart in the Caribbean (especially in Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname) allowed the East Indians to develop culturally, socially, religiously and otherwise separately from the rest of the society in a parallel community they created outside the mainstream society on the outskirts of the estates on which they formerly worked.

The creation of their new identity in the Caribbean commencing with their earliest intervention could not be seen in the likeness of the coloniser because the ex-indentured immigrants were determined to forge an identity linked, anchored and solidified within the concept of their ancient Indian civilization. Their continuing struggle to redeem themselves, to reconnect with the motherland and to reclaim their historical civilization was bequeathed to future generations and became indelibly influenced and aligned to the new Caribbean environments in which they found themselves. Their ancestors’ vindication to migrate to a foreign land for betterment would find its fulfilment in the third and fourth diasporic generations in the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, as they emerged as educated persons with well-paying jobs and leaders in their local communities and countries. In modern times, the Indian High Commissioner in the Caribbean has facilitated the legacy of the continued search for roots by East Indians in the Caribbean and has encouraged the search for identity.

This has been done in both the larger on the smaller countries in the Caribbean through the exchange of academia, Hindi language, music, dance, trade and Indian music all facilitated by the Indian High Commission. Another factor that has added to the current continued expansion of the Indian indentured legacy is the proliferation of radio, TV, Indian movies and access to the World Wide Web by Indians in the Caribbean that is brought Indian culture into their homes via media and the social media.

Much of this hype of Indo-Caribbeans to re-imagine the expansion of their identity by the continued reproduction of their inherited traditions and the newly imported Indian film influenced cultural strains, which have been or are continually adjusted to their newer circumstances, both in the larger and the smaller countries have converged to produce a unique Indo-Caribbean identity.  While that identity may fluctuate from country to country, the core elements of Indian identity remain intact.

The legacy they have handed down to their descendants has changed the Caribbean landscape forever in terms of the flora and fauna, songs, music, dance, dress, religion and ethnic composition.


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Ramcharan, Nanlal.  Personal Interview with Nanlal Ramcharan. Male, 100 yrs.  Plum Road, Sangre Grande, 22Aug., 2009;2011

Chadee, Francis.  Personal Interview with Francis Chadee. Retired Primary School Principal. Male, 84 years. Penal. 9 Aug., 2008.

[1]            Unlike Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana which accessed Indian indentureship after the end of slavery, in Suriname, indentured immigrants were accessed during the apprenticeship from 1863 – 1873. The importation of Indian indentured immigrants in Suriname was not in response to the labor shortage but was intended to avoid the shortage of labor which was quite clearly envisioned would follow after full freedom of the slaves in 1873. However, despite the fact that Indian indentured immigrants were imported to Suriname before the end of the apprenticeship they still faced the ire of the ex-slaves in a similar fashion to what occurred in Trinidad and Tobago.

[2]            Jahaji Bundle. A big bag or cloth tied at the top containing one’s personal items. Jahaji is an Indian word meaning shipmate, specifically those indentured servants who traveled from India to the Caribbean on the same ship. A jahaji bundle was the bundled possessions of those servants.

[3]            Nanlal Ramcharan.  Interview with Nanlal Ramcharan. Plum Road, Sangre Grande. 100 yrs. old. 2009

[4]            Francis Chadee, Personal Interview with Francis Chadee. 9 Aug. 2008. Male, 84 years. Penal. Retired Primary School Principal.

[5]            Nanlal Ramcharan. Interview with Nanlal Ramcharan. Plum Road, Sangre Grande. 102 yrs. old. 2011.