A “Sacred Vision” of 170 Years Presence of the Indian Diaspora in Martinique
Written by Claire-Ania Virgile
Sunday May 7, 2023
Each year on May 6th, Martinique commemorates “Indian Arrival Day,” honoring the arrival of Indian indentured laborers to the French Caribbean. Various waves of immigration and deportation of men and women have contributed to make the Caribbean an intercultural space where syncretism is often manifested. After the violent enslavement of people from Africa and the abolition of slavery, thousands of South Asians Indentured laborers were brought to work in the sugar cane plantation in the Caribbean. These laborers were called by the derogatory term ‘coolie’. Under obscure conditions, they were often tricked, forced, mistreated and abused. As a result, most of them never physically returned to their homeland but still kept a deep emotional attachment to India, which was subsequently passed on to their children.
Thus, since the mid-nineteenth century (1853) officially, the Indian population (mainly Hindus) had an indelible impact on the social and cultural history of the Martinican culture. This hybrid cultural identity between African-descendants and Indo-descendants is defined as “Indianité.” The presence of Indian descendance is particularly visible during “Indian Day” which aims to promote the ancestral heritage through dances, culinary experience and religious rituals. Even with its discreet presence, nowadays, more people reclaim this branch of their origins without any shame. Indeed, those who used to practice Hindu-Caribbean rituals were equated with evil. The previous generation created a syncretic faith combining Christianity and Hinduism. Three languages are spoken: Creole, French and rarely ancient Tamil in one place. For example, according to some believers the goddess “Mariamman” (popular Hindu deity in South India) refers to the “Virgin Mary.” It was a way to preserve their practices despite the social restrictions.
The second main deity is “Maldévilen” (Madurai Viran in Tamil) considered as a hero and protector. Offerings - vegetable-based – are composed of flowers, incense, camphor, fruits such as bananas, rice, milk, soft drink, cigarettes and alcohol. Moreover, for “Kali” worship roosters and goats are used as offerings. In short, these traditional practices characterized the memory of the Indo-Caribbean.
In 2023, their descendants began to create a visual documentation for themselves by depicting their culture, spirituality and that of their ancestors via arts. This year stands for the 170 years of the Indian Diaspora in Martinique. While, the visual representation of these women and men's memories often remains in postcard archives from the colonial perspective, their individual and collective memory remains to be written by the Indo-descendants. Especially the visual representation, which has long been limited to a colonial administrative register. Compared to visible places such as Trinidad or Guyana, the mention of Indo-descendants from Martinique is often forgotten during international commemoration day. In this digital era, photography offers a view on ancestry tangible and intangible cultural heritages. The photobook SACRED VISION pays tribute to the resistance of African descendants through Rastafari and Indo-descendant in Martinique which are important for self-identity. This innovative documentation approach takes part in the preservation and transmission for future generations.
About the Author
Author of the photobook SACRED VISION: Indian Diaspora & Rastafari in Martinique. Claire-Ania is a PhD student in English Studies and a photographer. Her passion for ancestral practices and photography come together to highlight a syncretism: related to her specific identity, “in-betweenness “by her African and Indian lineage. Through portraits she explores the complexities of black identity in the Caribbean. The central point of her academic research is on the memory of Indo-Caribbean women. For more information visit: www.claireania.com or @indianaania on Instagram.
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