top of page




Indo-Caribbean Women’s Jewelry: Traditions and Innovations

Written by Joy Mahabir

Sunday November 5, 2023

Heidi McKenzie, Bangle, 2023. Stoneware, porcelain drybrush, glaze, silver acrylic pen, 18’x 26”x 8”. Photo: Dale Roddick

My mother’s grandmother, Maharajiah, traveled across the kala pani from India to Trinidad in 1907. Maharajiah’s father was a child during the 1857 Siege of Cawnpore. Hiding in a boatman’s hut, he observed the orange flames as British soldiers, unrestrained in their revenge for British lives lost during the Siege, burnt villages to the ground. Black ashes covered fields and the Sati Chaura Ghat on the bank of the Ganges. Decades after the Siege, when Maharajiah was born, villagers remained impoverished. 


As young adults, Maharajiah and her husband were forced to leave Kanpur to survive. They served a period of indentureship in Fiji, where my grandfather was born. The family then took on a second term of indentureship in Trinidad, where they remained. 


In Trinidad, Maharajiah was paid in silver shillings. She adopted the practice of indentured women, melting her wages into specific styles of jewelry. Variations of this Trinidadian practice of wearing wages emerged to a lesser extent in other Caribbean spaces of indentureship.  


When Maharajiah wore her jewelry, she was not aware that pieces such as hers would become central to postcards commissioned by agricultural companies in the early twentieth century.  


Photographer unknown, “East Indian, Trinidad, B.W.I.,” postcard, ca. 1910-1915, Muir, Marshall and Co., Port -of-Spain, Trinidad

Some of the typical pieces can be glimpsed in the postcard image: the elongated cuff or churia, beras (heavy bracelets), bazubands (armbands), necklaces such as chandahars, tillarys, kanthis, hasulis and chakapahees (also called chakapajees), karas (anklets), nakhpuls (nose rings), finger and toe rings. 


In photographs taken in Trinidad, indentured women are posed as exotic and disciplined subjects, and their labor seems invisible. Yet, the very presence of jewelry subverts the colonial intention of these photographs, since the jewelry represents the wages and labor of indentured women. As wages, the jewelry shows that indentured women had their labor exploited to create profits for agricultural companies. These women were central to multinational networks of global capitalism operating during the period of indentureship.  


Of course, indentured women did not wear all their jewelry while working in the fields. In Trinidad, a man’s long sleeve shirt was worn over a jhula (blouse) and ghangari (long skirt). Long sleeves are essential for working under the tropical sun amidst unwieldy crops. During and after indentureship, female laborers often chose men’s clothing for fieldwork. 


When not in the field, many women wore their wages, like the market vendor in the postcard below. Although most colonial photographs are extremely staged and manipulated, this scene was once the norm at the San Fernando market. Bedecked in the jewelry of indenture, women, now independent farmers, sold their vegetables, herbs, provisions, spices and Indian sweets on wooden trays. 


Photographer unknown, “East Indian Woman, Trinidad, B.W.I.” postcard, ca. 1910-1915

Besides photographs, texts produced from the same era such as travel narratives, memoirs, fiction, poetry, financial documents and legal reports also advance limited, colonial ideas of jewelry. To indentured women, however, jewelry had specific meanings beyond adornment, symbolizing wages, labor, labor resistance. courage, independence and freedom. Traditional uses of jewelry as symbolic gifts and religious offerings were also retained. 


When she left estate work, Maharajiah always wore her silver wrist-to-elbow churia and karas. Her diaphanous orhni was knotted at the back, and her everyday clothing was a cotton jhula and ghangari. Maharajiah kept the rest of her silver jewelry in a white cotton drawstring bag, and for this reason most of the pieces were easily taken. Below is a pair of churiyaan separated from her churia, the weight of each evoking her strength. 


Silver churiyaan, separated from a churia made in 1909 (Collection of Joy Mahabir)

In northeast Trinidad, women who worked in the cocoa estates chose to wear symbols of their labor and had the ends of beras fashioned into cocoa-pods. 


Silver “Cocoa-Pod” Beras, Rattan Jewellers, La Romain, Trinidad, 2012 (Collection of Joy Mahabir)

Working in fields of crimson cocoa pods or green sugarcane, women envisioned a better life for their children and community. They used their jewelry as collateral to secure loans for land, small businesses, or their children’s education, resisting the colonial trajectory of subservience and labor exploitation meant for the indentured.  


One of the most important aspects of jewelry is its centrality in events of resistance. During indentureship there were several estate strikes in south Trinidad, and the silver jewelry of laborers is part of the iconography of these protests. 


Designs of jewelry also reference historical events. Beras fashioned with tadjahs at the ends are an intimate reminder of the 1884 Hosay Massacre in south Trinidad, when colonial police and British soldiers fired into a Hosay procession after the crowd defied a ban on gathering. Thirty years after this devastating incident, a mass grave of those killed was unearthed when the San Fernando market was being rebuilt on Mucurapo Street. There are no concrete memorials of the massacre, but jewelry has become a silent archive of resilience.


 Silver Bera, private jeweler, San Fernando, Trinidad, 2000 (Collection of Joy Mahabir)

When Indians in Trinidad acquired middle-class status, the preference for gold emerged. These two pieces below belonged to my grandmother, Jane Sinanan. The gold bera was made by a jeweler who traveled with his tools to private homes. When jewelry was crafted at home, villagers would gather around to observe the process. Beyond an act of curiosity, this communal assembly shows that despite the brutalities of the colonial systems of slavery and indentureship, Caribbean people have forged their own ideas and appreciation of art and beauty. 


Gold Bera, private jeweler, Claxton Bay, Trinidad, ca 1943 (Collection of Deborah Mahabir-Yearwood)


Gold Necklace, designed and made by Ernest Ramesar Jewellers, Couva, Trinidad, ca. 1945 (Collection of Joy Mahabir)

Seen everywhere in the Caribbean and its diaspora, Indo-Caribbean jewelry is intrinsic to Caribbean culture. This understanding of the jewelry registers in new pieces that incorporate visuals such as anthuriums, orchids, hibiscus flowers and maps of islands. 


The jewelry of indenture remains a source of inspiration because of its multiple literal and symbolic meanings. In summer 2023, ceramic artist Heidi McKenzie displayed work influenced by this jewelry at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. The blue and grey shades of Bangle invoke a traditional churia as well as the shades of Atlantic waters seen during the kala pani voyage of indentureds from India to the Caribbean. 

Heidi McKenzie. Bangle, 2023. Stoneware, porcelain drybrush, glaze, silver acrylic pen. 18

Heidi McKenzie, Bangle, 2023. Stoneware, porcelain drybrush, glaze, silver acrylic pen, 18’x 26”x 8”. Photo: Dale Roddick

This piece also resonated with one of my poems entitled Widow

Widow by Joy Mahabir 

Widowed since eight, her bangles shattered

Bare hand immersed in blue-green waters

Kala-pani voyage ends, new journeys begin

Her arm wrapped in silver

raises fearlessly into a fist. 

Joy Mahabir.jpg

About the Author

Joy Mahabir is the author of Alternative Texts: Indo-Caribbean Women’s Jewelry and Communal Style: Indo-Caribbean Women’s Jewelry. Recent short stories include Journey to Ashes (PREE Caribbean Writing) and Datura (Jewish Noir 2). She is Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College of the State University of New York.

Story is an Indo-Caribbean newsletter designed to bring Canadian Caribbean culture to the forefront. Explore Indo-Caribbean news, identity, and culture online.

bottom of page