EXPLORING OUR INTANGIBLE CULTURAL HERITAGE IN MAURITIUS : The Historic Significance of the Ramayana and Ram Leela Among the Indentured Labourers

The GOPIO International
Conference on Indenture

Between 18th and 20th August 2017, the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) International is organizing a milestone International Conference entitled ‘The 100th Anniversary of The End of Indenture in Mauritius and the British Empire and the 70th Anniversary of the Independence of India’ at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture, the Ramayana Centre, and at the French Institute of Mauritius. This conference will be held in collaboration with the Indian High Commission in Mauritius, the Indian Council of International Co-operation (ARSP)-New Delhi, and the International Indenture Girmityas Foundation.
The major objective of this International Conference will be to bring together scholars, government officials, public figures, community leaders and NGOs who are carrying out research on the history of indentured labour, the Indian global diaspora, the modern history of India and Indian independence. It will also see the participation of different branches of GOPIO International from around the world such as from La Réunion, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, France, and Guadeloupe. There will be academics, professors, and eminent personalities from more than 15 countries from around the world at the conference. One of the important sessions at the conference will be on intangible cultural heritage which will include an in-depth discussion on the religion, culture, and oral traditions of the Indian indentured workers and their descendants in Mauritius such as the Ramayana and Ram Leela.

The Symbolism of Ram Leela in Mauritius
In January 2013, Kailash Purryag, the former President of the Republic of Mauritius, made an emotional and historic trip to his ancestral village in Bihar, India. On that special occasion, some of the talented villager artists gave a vibrant rendition of Ram Leela or the story of Ram which served as a symbolic reminder to the Mauritian President that one of their lost sons had returned home to Bihar where the kingdom of Lord Ram once existed thousands of years ago according to the great Indian epic ‘The Ramayana’.
The enactment of the Ram Leela is also an important tangible example of the special cultural and historic bond between Mauritius and the Indian Subcontinent. It also epitomizes the fact that the more than an estimated 462,000 indentured Indian and non-Indian men, women and children who passed through the Aapravasi Ghat as they brought their intangible heritage namely their languages, culture, religions, culinary heritage, stories, riddles, popular games and traditions from India to their new home to small British colony in the south west Indian Ocean. Therefore, Ram Leela exemplifies this transfer of cultural traditions from Mother India to Mauritius. This forms part of what during the 1940s and 1950s, Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal, one of the great Indo-Mauritian historic figures, called the ‘Ramayana consciousness and heritage’ which exists in Mauritius since the mid-19th century or for more than 150 years.
This fact is important when looking at Mauritian history and the history of the Aapravasi Ghat or the Immigration Depot and of the Indian indentured labourers. After all, the Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed under UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s criterion (vi) which deals with the intangible heritage of a particular people and place. Ram Leela is a key example of this intangible heritage and it is important to remember that in 2005, UNESCO declared the Ramayana and related to it the Ram Leela, a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible heritage of  the world.
Recently Pandit Arun, the Founder and Chairman of the Ramayana Center, accurately described the impact which this ‘Ramayana conscious’ has had among Hindu Indo-Mauritians. After all for more than a century and a half, it has lived and prospered through the public enactments of the Ram Leela and public and private readings of the Ramayana in Mauritius. Ever since their early arrival in Mauritius between the mid-1820s and late 1840s, some of the Indian immigrants brought with them knowledge of the Ramayana and even in some rare cases brought a copy of this ancient Indian epic.
This fact is clearly illustrated today through a copy of the Ramayana dating from the 1840s and written in the Kaithi script of north central India. It belonged to an Indian immigrant from Uttar Pradesh and was donated to be put on display at the MGI Folk Museum. Furthermore, as early as the late 1840s and 1850s, W.W.West, a British planter and several other Franco-Mauritian planters reported that on some of their sugar estates there were “schools” for the children of immigrants where they were also taught some of their religious text such as the Ramayana and enacted famous stories from Hindu mythology such as the story of Rama or Ram Leela.

The Pioneering Work of Nundall,
Immigrants Servanin and Rungassamy

Between the l830s and 1840s, there were hundreds of immigrants who came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other parts of India who were literate and semi-literate. Many among them are known as the ‘early pioneer Indian indentured workers’ who by the mid-19th century and after managed to leave estate labour and achieve some measure of social and economic mobility and obtain some rudimentary education.
They were sirdars, job contractors, labour overseers, small independent land cultivators, small landowners, small business owners and skilled workers who became the pillars of the indentured and ex-indentured Indian and Indo-Mauritian community in the rural districts. They became “the community leaders” or the social reference points for the indentured and ex-indentured workers on the sugar estates and in the newly emerging small hamlets and villages and other areas where Old Immigrants were purchasing land, squatting or getting settled beyond the perimeters of the sugar estates.
In their 2017 seminal academic article on the sirdars in the Indian indentured labour diaspora, Dr. Marina Carter and Dr. Crispin Bates, two British social historians, accurately explain “Sirdars [including labour overseers and job contractors] played an important role in heading and financing festivals and other cultural and religious organizations that were of great significance to estate workers.”
Therefore, these successful early Indian immigrants and also their children paved the way between the 1860s and 1880s, for the gradual introduction of Ramayan reading and chanting and the Ram Leela reenactment on some of the sugar estates, hamlets and villages such as in Grand Port, Flacq and Rivière du Rempart and also in other rural districts. Essentially through fragments of archival documents from the National Archives, MGI Archives and the National Library, a study of the life stories and experiences of some of these outstanding and forgotten Indian indentured workers and the family stories/oral family narratives and their private documents which bring to light the contributions of some of these important immigrants.
Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, in all the eight rural districts, there were important Old Indian immigrants who clearly showed that one man can make a difference in this transmission of cultural heritage and traditions from the Indian immigrants to the first, second and third generations of Indo-Mauritians. It is essentially oral traditions which serve as the vehicle for this transmission, perpetuation and preservation of these important aspects of their intangible cultural heritage. Who were some of these outstanding and unsung heroes of the history of indentured labourers and their settlement of Mauritius as they went from sojourners to settlers?
During the 1890s, Sirdar Ramdhuny Nundall, the son of Immigrant Nunlall a Bengali indentured worker, and my great great grand father, established a bhaitka in the estate camp of Labourdonnais Sugar Estate. It was one of the first places in Rivière du Rempart district where the Ramayana was read on a weekly basis and the Ram Leela was enacted four times per year by children of the Indian immigrants. In addition, Sirdar Nundall helped to establish the tradition of the Ramayan reading and chanting and Ram Leela reenactment in areas such as Labourdonnais, Forbach and Cottage during a period of more than 30 years.
During the mid-19th century, especially among the majority non-literate immigrants, Ram Leela was one of the important forms of entertainment. Between the 1860s and 1890s, in Grand Port district, Immigrant Rungassamy from Tamil Nadu and Immigrant Servanin of Kerala, two job contractors and small planters encouraged their fellow countrymen to uphold and observe their religion and traditions. They arrived in Mauritius in 1839 and 1836 respectively. They established bhaitkas on the sugar estates of Union Vale, St.Hubert and Beau Vallon and brought pundits to encourage the reading of the Ramayana. Over a period of more than 30 years, they encouraged the children of the immigrants and Indo-Mauritian boys to hold the Ram Leela twice to thrice per year. They were two former indentured immigrants who pioneered the tradition of reading the Ramayana and the Ram Leela in Grand Port or the south of Mauritius.