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By DR. Kumar Mahabir
The following is a synopsis of a ZOOM public meeting held recently (20/9/20) on the topic “The 12,000 persons of East Indian descent in Belize, Central America: Embracing the challenges of maintaining their ancestral roots in a multi-ethnic society.” The Pan Caribbean meeting was hosted by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre (ICC).
The speakers were CURLETTE RAMCLAM-PALACIO, a resident of Toledo and the President of the Yellow Ginger Festival of Belize; DR ALBERT WILLIAMS, an Associate Professor of Finance and Economics at Nova South-eastern University in South Florida; and SYLVIA GILHARRY PEREZ, the Founder and President of Corozal Organization of East Indian Cultural Heritage (COEICH). The discussant was DR KUMAR MAHABIR, an Anthropologist and former Organization of American States (OAS) Fellow.
SYLVIA GILHARRY PEREZ provided the following overview of the history and present status of the East Indian community in Belize:
Only English-speaking country in Central America
Belize is an 8,867-square-mile tropical paradise tucked in the heart of the Caribbean basin and bordered by Mexico (North) and Guatemala (South-West). It is home to a multi-ethnic population of over 300,000 persons. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America as well as the only Central American member of CARICOM [Caribbean Community]. The country has approximately 3.9 % (12,452) persons of East Indian descent.
The East Indian population in Belize are indirect descendants of immigrants from India. Many Belizeans mistakenly refer to anyone from India as “Hindus” or “Coolies”. Considered a derogatory term, “Coolie” means a paid servant of East Indian descendent. The term “Hindu” really refers to a person of the Hindu faith, the dominant religion of India.
In contrast to Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, and other former West Indian British colonies that recruited indentured Indian laborers directly from then British India, Belize has never made such a request for Indians. Between 1872 and 1890, over 3,000 Indian laborers from Jamaica voluntarily relocated themselves to Belize to work in the sugarcane, timber, and banana industries. East Indian coffee workers from Guatemala also joined them in Belize, formerly called British Honduras.
Queen Charlotte Town was home to Indians
The first arrivals named one of their villages in Belize, “Calcutta” and later, a football team “Bengals.” East Indians proved to be industrious and thrifty and showed the propensity to save their earnings and invest in entrepreneurial activities.
Queen Charlotte Town (named after the wife of the British King George III) was home to the majority of Indians until it was destroyed by the historic hurricane in 1931. The survivors were dispersed to other districts.
Plantation owners encouraged their workers to use the English language for fear that the East Indians would plot against them in their native language. As a result, few Indic words remain, the majority being specific to Indian food. Indians were placed to work alongside other ethnic groups, and prejudices were eroded and mixed-marriages ensued with Creoles, Garifuna and Maya Indians. This mixing prevented Indians from Belize from retaining much of their cultural practices. More Indian men than women were also recruited which led to more out-marrying.
Their traditional religion of Hinduism and Islam weakened because of the absence of religious and cultural leaders as well as the nonexistence of mandirs and mosques. Belize was also too far away from India for travel and spiritual connectivity.
Retentions of culinary dishes, curry, and kheesas [folktales]
However, remnants of traditional culture remain in the form of culinary dishes, curry, and kheesas [folktales]. There is also the retention of the Who-Seh-Me-Seh dance which was part of the Shiite Muslim commemoration of Muharram. However, it has been recreated in a Christian version in commemoration of the Ark of Covenant with the battle of Hassan and Hussein – grandsons of Prophet Muhammed – substituted for the fight between two brothers, Cain and Abel in the Bible. Indians still maintain their cultural ties to agriculture for home consumption, with surpluses sold in the market.
People of Indian Origin (PIO) in Belize now face the imminent danger of disappearance as an ethnic group, now numbering just 12,452 or 3.9% of the total population of 300,000. This tragic trend could be stemmed by conducting educational outreach programs to revive and strengthen Indian culture. A dating electronic service with members of the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean should also be introduced. There is also a need for more networking with other cultural organizations in the region.
In 2014, COEICH was the main convener of a Conference on the Indian Diaspora in Belize and the wider Caribbean. The National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) was one of the sponsors. East Indians continue to embrace the challenges of retracing the footsteps of their ancestors. As they embark on this journey to reclaim and revive their traditions, they cherish the values deeply embedded in their ancestral practices. Contact Sylvia if you want to visit Belize firstname.lastname@example.org. WhatsApp (501) 600-7801, San Antonio, Corozal, Belize.
Correspondence – Dr. Kumar Mahabir, San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean. WhatsApp/Mobile: (868) 756-4961 E-mail: email@example.com
Tenali Ramakrishna, or Tenali Raman as he is more popularly known is Birbal's equivalent in South India. A court jester and a scholar exuding great wisdom, Tenali Raman was known as one of the greatest courtiers in King Krishnadevaraya's court.
The Vijayanagar Empire ruled a large part of South India between 1336 and 1646. In the 16th century, the kingdom rose to prominence under the eminent leadership of King Krishnadevaraya. His continuous victories against his enemies ensured a successful and peaceful reign for his subjects. As a patron of art and literature, many crafts and cultural assets thrived in the empire.
Krishnadevaraya's beloved courtier, Tenali Raman is the finest example of the splendour of the Vijayanagar empire. He was born in Tenali, a town in Andhra Pradesh. He lived here until he lost his father, after which his mother brought him to Vijayanagar. He was discovered for his excellent wit and wisdom, and appointed in the court. He was one of the king's ashtadiggajas (collective name for the eight poets and scholars).
A statue of Tenali Ramakrishna near a Municipal Office in Andhra Pradesh Image source: wikimedia commons
Tenali Raman as a scholar, published great texts of wisdom, which have now become artefacts of the Kingdom of Vijayanagara. But his fame does not lie in these achievements. He is known for the mischievous jester that mythical folklore portrays him to be. Through stories, many writers have used jokes to impart wisdom and morals to many generations of people. The stories of Tenali Raman are almost legendary in the Southern peninsula.
Textbooks have been written with his moral stories in mind, and these days, many self-help book are also incorporating his wisdom. His most popular stories are, 'Mother Tongue', 'Cursed Face', 'Saluting the Donkeys' and many more. Through these stories, Tenali Raman, in some way, brought about social justice. Perhaps this is why he is most beloved by many people even today.
Keywords: Tenali Raman, Vijayanagar empire, Krishnadevaraya, Jester, Wisdom
It must be noted that different religions and societies in Southeast Asia have alternative narratives of Ramayana, one of the greatest epic.
Here are some of the versions of Ramayana!
Dasaratha Jakarta: The Buddhist Version
Interestingly, this version of Ramayana does not mention Ravana at all and in fact, there’s no mention of Sita’s abduction, too. In this version, Dasaratha is the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Also, Rama and Sita leaves kingdom and go to the Himalayas and not forests. Then, after twelve years, Rama and Sita return back to Benaras and get married.
Paumachariya: The Jaina Version
In this version, Lakshamana is the killer of Ravana and not Rama. Here, Rama is an ardent follower of Jainism, and so he cannot be the killer of Ravana. Also, this version states an army of warrior and not monkeys, as stated in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Another interesting feature of this version is that Ramayana is not shown as a villain, rather a magnanimous king and follower of Jainism.
Gond Ramayani: The Gond Version
Gond is an adivasi clan belonging from Madhya Pradesh in India. Interestingly, in this version, the story begins from where Valmiki’s Ramayana ended; when Sita is rescued from captivity. Also, Bhima, one of the Pandavas from the epic of Mahabharata, is mentioned in this version. Unlike Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is not the protagonist in this version.
Ramakien: The Thai Version
This is considered as Thailand's national epic, and is still taught in some schools in the country. In this version, Ravana is shown as a learned scholar and a noble king in this version. Also, Ravana’s pursuit for Sita is depicted as true love. There are a lot of similarities between this version of Ramayana and Valmiki’s version, but this version lays a lot of emphasis on Hanuman.
When a baby is born in an Indian household-they invite hijra to shower the newborn with their blessings for their blessings confer fertility, prosperity, and long life on the child. But when that child grows up we teach them to avert their eyes when a group of hijras passes by, we pass on the behaviour of treating hijras as lesser humans to our children. Whenever a child raises a question related to gender identity or sexuality they are shushed down. We're taught to believe that anything "deviant" and outside of traditional cis-heteronormativity is something to be ashamed of. This mentality raises anxious, scared queer adults who're ashamed of their own identity, and adults who bully people for "queer behaviour".
Hijras are a community of people who include eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people. They worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata. Most hijras, but not all, choose to undergo a castration ceremony known as "nirvana" in which they remove their male genitalia as an offering to their goddess. The whole community is vibrant with hundreds of people with hundreds of ways of expression, the true identity of a hijra is complex and unique to each individual. In India, hijras prefer to refer to themselves as Kinner/Kinnar as it means the mythological beings who excel at singing and dancing.
Hijras worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata.homegrown.co.in
The hijra community works systematically, the community separates itself from the outside world and teaches lessons to the young ones in secret. Each community has a guru and the other hijras are their disciples or chela. The "hijra ways of life" are taught to the disciples in a secluded environment where they leave their families and live with other hijras in the community. More often than not hijras are thought of as nothing different from transgender and often referred to as transgender; however, scientifically these two terms denote a different class of people. Hijras are a part of the whole community of people with various identities and of spiritual and cultural values meanwhile, transgender merely refers to those people whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, they are a part of the community and do not represent the whole community.
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Historically and culturally the community has existed in the Indian subcontinent as long as the civilization has existed. There are mentions of hijra in The Mahabharata, a holy book of Hindus. Shikhandi who was neither male nor female is a mythological legend. In another version of Mahabharata Arjuna, one of the Pandavas was cursed to be the third gender by Urvashi, when he refused to be sexually involved with her. In a story by Padma Purana, it is seen that Arjuna transforms into a woman to take part in Krishna's mystical dance which only women can take part in. The Hijra figures are prominent in Indian Mughal History as well, referred to as Khwaja Siras and known for their loyalty to the ruler, they worked as the sexless watchdogs of the Mughal harems. They held important positions in court and various facets of administration during Mughal-era India, from the 16th to 19th century. The Hijra community is a testament to the sexual diversity that is integral yet often forgotten in Indian culture.
If the whole hijra community was looked upon with enamor and respect in our history, what happened that when we come across the community we look at them with contempt and are filled with a mixture of negative, fear, laughter, and odd emotions. It's owing to the fact that under British Raj, the Criminal tribes Act 1871 hijras were criminalized and the law was made to eradicate the whole community. However, these acts were abolished by the Indian government after independence, and by 2014, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh all had officially recognized third gender people as citizens deserving of equal rights where the third gender means individuals categorizing themselves as neither male nor female. Even though the progress is slow but in 2015 Madhu Kinnar became the first hijra mayor in India was elected in the city of Raigarh.
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Although the hijra community was revered by society and is invited to births and weddings for religious and spiritual ceremonies, they still become victims of abuse and discrimination. Violence and hate crimes against the community have become common. They are deprived of education, job opportunities, seating in restaurants, etc. leading them to live in poor conditions barely surviving. They often have to resort to begging and prostitution to earn a daily living. The government has tried to address this issue by introducing bills for the protection of the hijra community, with prison terms and other punishments for those offending them, but there is little to no less effect on the social stigma against the community.
In India, the hijra community comes under the umbrella term LGBTQ+ and we notice that they lack voice and representation when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. We need to understand that when we fight for LGBTQ+ rights we fight for the whole community, we fight for hijras who have been victims of violence, hate crimes, and disrespect from none other than the people of our society. And although hijras are a part of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, they have an independent subculture of their own. It is worth every effort to know about them, to study about them, to befriend them, and to smile at them for they are every bit of human as we are and they have nothing but blessings in their heart.