“Bye and bye make very long journey,
Cross Kalla-panee I shall go…” excerpt “Bengalee Baboo” satirical song, 19th century.
firts person sinIn early Hindu mythology, the Earth was believed to be suspended in a vast cosmic ocean called the “Garbhodaka.” Described as a bottomless pit of darkness where damned souls suffered, Hell or “Naraka,” existed between this southern realm of the universe and the different levels of the underworld including “Pitriloka” the domain of the God “Yama” who delivered judgement of the dead.
Annually, devout Hindus in Guyana and around the world continue to observe the solemn 16-lunar days-period of “Pitri” or “Pitru Paksha” linking the present to the past by performing “Shraddha” or set religious rituals during the reserved fortnight. They propitiate and pay homage to their ancestors, among them the Indian indentured labourers or “girmityas” and the “ship brothers and sisters” or “jahajis.” “Girmit” is derived from Fijian Hindi for “agreement” alluding to the work contract each approved migrant had to sign, while “jahaji” comes from the Hindi for nautical or naval in acknowledgement of the then only method of transport. “Shraddha” features special food offerings ranging from “kheer” or “sweet rice” milk pudding, “lapsi” a wheat porridge, white rice and “dhal” or lentils, to black sesame seeds or “till,” pumpkin and other vegetables.
The river Vaitarna or Vaitarani which lies between Earth and Hell is seen by the sinful as frightfully filled with blood, while the righteous bound for heaven or “Svarga” are blessed to view it as instead overflowing with nectar. Usually occurring in the Hindu months corresponding to September and October, “Pitri Paksha” would have fallen during the yearly sailing season of the many ships crammed with Indian indentured labourers bound for islands like Mauritius south of India, and even further away across the Southern Hemisphere, to the distant colonies in the West Indies and South America.
British Captain, William H. Angel does not mention if the Hindus on board the speedy, new clipper, the “Sheila,” managed to mark the designated phase, and he may not have noticed if it was done secretly or quietly as expected aboard a foreign vessel, but he referred fleetingly to the Indians’ loss of caste incurred by crossing the “calle pannee” or “kali pani” literally translated as “black water.” While the “coolies had their own cooks” in strict accordance with their group and faith, he pointed out that “caste is in a great measure broken by the mere fact of their leaving India and coming to sea or ‘calle pannee’ (kali pani) as they name it.”
Sea voyages were strictly forbidden to the highest castes according to the ancient Indian law codes, the orthodox “Dharmasutras,” from which the various sacred Hindu texts called “shastras” originated out of the long literary tradition of the “Vedas,” itself composed two to three millennia ago. The term in Sanskrit “Sagara Ullanghana” or “Samudra Ullanghana” proscribed such polluting travel for Brahmins who served as important priests, scholars and teachers, in the conservative, classified system of society divided along “varnas,” a variable word which can mean from order, occupation and type, to caste. If the Brahmins were unable to keep up stipulated daily rites and customs this would disrupt the divine natural order, existence or “dharma.” This versatile Sanskrit expression has multiple meanings in the main Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism with no equivalent single word translation in Western languages.
Signifying stipulated Hindus’ “right” conduct, duties, laws and virtues, “dharma” can be applied too, to the teachings of the Buddha, the Jain concept of moral transformation, and the Sikh path of righteousness and proper practice.
One of the earliest treatises, the “Dharmasutra of Baudhayana,” named for the renowned mathematician and high priest who wrote it, lists oceanic journeys as the first of seven offences that cause the loss of caste titled “pataniya.” Indologist and philologist, Professor Patrick Olivelle, a Sanskrit scholar translates the other sins as trading in all sorts of merchandise, stealing a Brahmin’s property or deposit, giving false testimony regarding land, serving the lower castes or the Sudras, fathering children by a Sudra woman, and being the child of such a union. Professor Olivelle writes that anyone who broke the rule was required “to eat a little at every fourth mealtime; bathe at dawn, noon, and dusk; and remain standing during the day and seated at night. In three years they wipe off their sin.”
“It takes three years of bathing at every fourth meal-time to remove the sin a Brahmin commits by serving the ‘black class (the Sudras) for one day,” he adds.
Fear of travelling through vast waterways also stemmed from severing close-knit community and extended family ties, and being cut off from the regenerating Ganges and the particular piece of the holy land, the “Dharti Mata” or “Mother Earth.” But for merchants, other members of the lower castes, and people fleeing for a certain reason be it famine, poverty or natural disasters, the 11 000 mile-journey also represented the chance of a fresh life and new opportunities. The extraordinary widow, the bejeweled “Queen of Sheba” chose to return to Trinidad as a free woman on the “Sheila” rather than exhaust her indentured worker savings to atone and pay for the elaborate and expensive compulsory ceremonies of purification to regain caste and rejoin her native patriarchal village as ordered by the powerful priests on her arrival in India.
“Sheba’s” profound statement in English to the Captain, “India only fit place for coolie” represents a curt dismissal of this old system and the outright rejection of what the birth country represents to her as a courageous, independent woman who was not only widowed more than once, but also earned significant income as a competent trader following her completion of an average decade of indentureship on the island.
Another 2000 year-old legal, metrical text, the rigid Manusmriti was among the first Sanskrit collections translated in 1794, during the British rule of India by the Anglo-Welsh multilingual prodigy, poet and lawyer, the hyperpolyglot, Sir William Jones and used to formulate controversial Hindu laws by the colonial government in a huge, diverse, multicultural country. Manusmriti declares that if a Brahmin did traverse the oceans, considered by North Indians a dangerous place of demons and ill-luck, he is to be denied the yearly appeasement of “Shraadha” and condemned to wander upon death.
During the 1838-1917 exodus of migrants, the some three months of rough passage across two oceans in the initial sailing ships hurriedly converted into profitable “coolie carriers” proved hellish enough for the confined human cargo, with terrifying weather conditions especially around the cold and wet Cape of Storms off the South African coast, the trauma and threat of rape and sexual assault, and ill-treatment through inadequate food, unsafe water, beatings and punishment.
In 1877, Captain Angel’s “Sheila” was among the swiftest ships doing “a run of 394 knots through the water” plus “72 knots of a current in our favour (the Agulhas stream)” which made “a total of 536 land miles over the ground” and put the vessel near to the wild Cape Point off Africa, just 41 days out from Calcutta.
By October 11, he reported “we have had three deaths amongst the (626) coolies – all through stomach complaints — and three births, a very good average so far, and no signs of epidemic.” Four more would die by the time the “Sheila” docked in Trinidad, a very low mortality rate at that time.
“For the first six or seven weeks out, there are always a number of (“coolie”) cases which give the doctors a good deal of anxiety. The trouble is caused chiefly by the unaccustomed food, and too much of it; their stomachs, and their forebears’ stomachs for many generations, have not been used to such stimulating food. This continues from about 45 to 50 days on an average – or until the ship is about due to arrive at St. Helena – but from there onwards for the rest of the passage they pick up wonderfully, and veritably, like the fat boy in Pickwick, ‘they wisibly swell,’ finally arriving in port in the pink of condition, fit to go at once to the plantations.”
He argued “in that relation lies the advantage of a sailing ship over a steamer; the steamer, if she is a full powered one, beats the sailing ship by just the last 15 to 20 days, which is the most critical time; and usually on arrival has to send a large contingent of her coolies to hospital for treatment, where they do not get treated or looked after so well as on board ship.”
Ironically, patients with severe stomach aches and diarrhoea called “nara” whether from lifting too heavy an object or strenuous physical activity were treated with massages by customary East Indian folk healers who have now all but disappeared from the modern landscape.
ID looks back at the Hindu creation story where the cosmic waters are dubbed “nara” after the Hindu avatar of the God Vishnu, working to preserve “dharma” or righteousness. In the concept, the human soul designated Nara/Arjuna is the eternal companion of Narayana/Krishna of the popular classic epic narrative, the Mahabharata.