An unusual syncretic Indian deity that combines aspects of different major faiths, the dark-coloured Lord Jagannath is still periodically and ceremoniously renewed as a sacred, simple wooden carving, brilliantly painted with a round face and huge symmetrical eyes. The circular form symbolises the divine concept of the Sanskrit terms “anadi,”without beginning, and “ananta,” without end.
Enshrined at the rebuilt 12th century temple in Puri, Odisha on the country’s eastern coast, the mask icon is considered an abstract cosmic representation of the popular God Krishna, regarded as an incarnation of the Hindu Preserver and Protector, Vishnu.
With diverse Buddhist, Jain and tribal roots, Jagannath emerged at the head of another powerful trinity featuring his older brother Balabadra/Balarama and youngest sister Subhadra. For centuries a vital pilgrimage destination, the temple is found at one of four consecrated cardinal points and attracts hordes of worshippers especially in June or July when it stages the annual Ratha Jatra, or India’s oldest Chariot Festival.
The three principal religious figures on massive, intricately-decorated temple chariots, are pulled by devotees in a public procession. In the 14th century, a Franciscan monk published a European apocryphal report of the enormous Indian carriage of many wheels that bore a statue of the God Jagannath, under which he claimed some worshippers deliberately sacrificed themselves. A compound word that is literally “Lord of the Universe” the name consists of “Jagan/Jagat” translated as the “Universe” and “Natha” the “Lord/Master.” By the 19th century the word “juggernaut” would come to mean a gigantic unstoppable force, object or merciless institution inciting often destructive devotion that would overwhelm or crush all in its path.
So too, the first British Guiana indentured immigrants of 1838 would encounter harsh punishments and ill-treatment on most of the assigned sugar estates, at the hands of their “sirdars”, work drivers and mates. For two Rajput young men just months into their fateful Guiana contracts, there would be opposite outcomes when the burrowing parasitic chigoe flea maggot termed “jiggars” tormented them leading to sickness and their transfer with about 25 others from the stinking Bellevue plantation facility to the Colonial Hospital in Georgetown. Both carried the surname Singh derived from the Sanskrit word for lion, adopted as a noble title by certain patrilineal warrior clans in India, including many Rajputs and all Sikhs.
Just 22 years old, Immigrant Number Nine, Jowhyhur Singh, whose name was spelled several ways in the official records, hailed from the populous, multicultural North Indian city of Lucknow, then the capital of the wealthy Awadh region, now in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He had travelled to the Calcutta port to leave on the “Whitby” sailing barque and may have also served as a cook on the vessel, being acceptable to the different castes.
On board were several “Rajpoots” among them Sewloll (Sewlall) Singh, 28, put to toil on the Bellevue Estate as a field labourer. Probably due to him working indoors, Jowhyhur had less “sores from jggars” and lost just over a month of wages. In comparison Sewlall was incapacitated for nearly three months by the time the new doctor, Colonial Surgeon Dr. E.M. Smith started treating the group. With an “ulcer extending to the Bones; first Joint of big Toe lost; Countenance expressive of much Suffering;” and “Body much emaciated” Sewlall remained hospitalised “in consequence of abscesses forming in the course of the tendon Achilles.” The Kurmi family of three were luckier, recovering that July.
Replying to queries from Governor Henry Light, on “the effect the hospital had on the prejudices of the Bellevue Coolies, and their disposition to communion,” Smith would cite “very happy results” while expressing regret ignorance of English prevented “a more free expression of feeling on the part of the Coolies” and proved “a serious obstacle” to imparting “instruction in the doctrines of Christianity.”
The doctor explained: “When the Coolies were admitted to the hospital they not only brought their cooking vessels, but they were accompanied by three of their own cooks, as they positively refused to taste any food not prepared in their own vessels and by one of their number. They likewise rejected any but the peculiar food sanctioned by their religious tenets. A very short time sufficed to remove this latter prejudice, as the happy circumstance of the speedy amendment of many of those patients inspired the whole number with such confidence in the medical prescriptions that they readily received whatever food I judged best suited to their state of health. An incident, illustrative of the previous strength of their prejudices, occurred in, the case of one of their cooks, a young man, named Jan Hair Sing (Jowhyhur Singh), who was induced to eat some ham, under the impression that it was food sanctioned by his religion, but in a peculiar way. He was delighted with it; but on being shortly after wards undeceived and told that he had eaten pork, his horror was so great that his stomach immediately rejected its contents. This experiment and result were observed on three different occasions by the resident surgeon.”
Smith was delighted that, “Not long after, the Coolies yielded their prejudices with regard to food” and “they permitted me to dismiss their cooks, and they partook of the usual food of the hospital prepared by colonial cooks. At this time they explained to me by their interpreter, that having left their own country it was proper not only to eat the food of Christians, but to become Christians themselves.”
In fact, “one of their number, a Brahmin named Suttale Sing (Sewlall Singh), in the anticipation of death, requested me to have his body thrown into the river. A short time previous to his death he abandoned this idea, said he would be buried in ‘duty’ (‘duttee’/earth), and requested me to send for a clergyman to pray with him. This request being granted, he expressed his satisfaction and comfort in having enjoyed the religious ministrations of a Christian, and he died in full belief of his safety.”
The surgeon disclosed that Jowhyhur “by the kind and judicious permission of Mr. Matheson, the attorney of Bellevue” was “placed under my charge, that he might receive (at his own earnest request) instruction in doctrine and such an education as may enable him to impart his knowledge of those important truths to his countrymen. I do not believe that he, as yet, possesses any clear knowledge of the distinguishing doctrines of Christianity. His motive for abandoning his former faith, he says, springs from a conviction that Jugernhaut (Jagannath), whom he worshipped as God, cannot be God, as he knows it to be ‘made by man of white slate (marble) and hundred other things;’ and he knows that man cannot make God.”
“This young man has already made great progress in reading and writing, and as he is now placed under the charge of the Rev. Mr. Fox, I anticipate much future good from this small beginning, which may ultimately prove of incalculable benefit to thousands of his heathen brethren, should it seem good to the British Government to permit a further introduction of Coolies into this colony,” he continued.
“I have been informed that the act of leaving their native country prepares the Coolies for conversion; or, it may be, indicates their disposition to conversion, in as much as they lose caste by emigrating, which is not regained by a return to their country. I would furthermore add, that Jan Hair Sing told me that he, with 15 of his countrymen, previous to their admission to the colonial hospital, had visited the minister of their parish, who had read something to them out of a ‘Bible book’ which made ‘the water run out of his eyes.’ These 15, with four others, he says, anxiously await his return to profit by the instructions he is now receiving.”
The surviving Singh would continue to be given special treatment, “on leave for instruction” from the day he was released from the Hospital June 7, 1839. He was “allowed, by his own desire, to be in town, to receive instruction” and was said to be “making great progress,” promising “hereafter (to) be of much service to his countrymen.”
A pleased Governor Light would inform the authorities of the “Christianity” developments. The Rector advised him “several coolies at Vreed-en-Hoop” were “in the habit of attending Divine Service at my church; their deportment while there is orderly and quiet; they are fast acquiring a knowledge of the English language; an evening adult school about to be established under my immediate inspection.”
At nearby Plantation Bellevue, the head “Sirdar,” the Mussulman, “Nertha/Nutha” Khan, 25, originally from the northern town of Allahabad was soon “admitted to the rite of baptism by the Presbyterian minister of the parish.” At a hearing of disgruntled Indians who complained of inadequate food supplies, docked wages and other problems, the labourer Goordeall insisted, “I do not want the headman; the sirdar (Khan) takes the coolies to do his own work; I do not object to do buckra (white man) work, but I will not work for the sirdar.” All the complaints were dismissed.
ID reads of a visiting Baltimore delegation seeking opportunities for “coloured” Americans in British Guiana who went up the Berbice River to Plantation Highbury, in the Sheriff’s boat “to see the Hill Coolies, natives of the East Indies, who are a hardy race, but yet in a state of ignorance, as they cannot be prevailed upon to quit their idols.”