- Hinduism first arrived on the Caribbean island of Trinidad on May 30, 1845, with a group of 197 Image of the Hindu trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, Elephanta Caves, Bombay (Mumbai) indentured workers, who had endured a month-long voyage from Calcutta (Kolkata) aboard the Fatal Kazack. Trinidad had become a British colony in 1802, after a takeover from Spain. After Britain abolished slavery in 1833, African slaves left the sugar and cocoa plantations to pursue employment as free workers in urban areas. To fill the labor shortage on plantations, British offi-cials developed a scheme to introduce indentured servants from India. Between 1845 and 1917 approximately 140,000 such workers arrived in Trinidad. Most were from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Calcutta in northern India; others were from Madras (Chennai) in the south. About 60 percent of them were males. The majority left their homes in India to escape decades of famine, while others sought to escape increased British repression in India after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the first of several revolutionary outbreaks of Indian nationalism.Indentured servants were originally contracted to work five years, yet the majority remained in Trinidad and formed permanent settlements. They were enticed by the offer of free land and did not want to return to India, where conditions had not yet improved. Settlers soon converted the land-scape, renaming streets and villages with familiar references to their Indian home.Colonial officials initially sought Indian work-ers from the lower castes, claiming that BRAHMINS had “soft hands” for the hard work of the cane fields. British policy soon explicitly denied pas-sage to the well educated in an effort to prevent Brahmins from stirring resistance among lower-caste workers. Nevertheless, approximately 10 percent of workers entering Trinidad were Brah-mins, who secured passage by concealing their caste status and changing their name. Many arrived in response to the urgent plea for spiritual guidance. As more Hindus settled permanently on the island, Brahmins were able to practice their religious duties more openly. By 1870, pub-lic Hindu rituals were common in villages that had large populations of Indians.Hindus in Trinidad followed the diverse forms of traditional worship and rituals common in their homeland. Over time, exposure to multi-cultural experiences and pressure by Brahmin leaders to make Hinduism a respected religion on the island combined to transform Hindu practices and make them distinct from Indian Hinduism. In the early 20th century the Brahmin caste con-solidated and standardized doctrines and ritual practices in an official, organized orthodoxy now defined by the Sanatana Dharma Maha Sabha, the largest Hindu organization in Trinidad. This central organization prescribes congregationally centered practices, BHAKTI rituals (devotions), and the study of scriptures. The specification of a Hindu orthodoxy has placed Hinduism on a par with other religions, compatible with Christianity and Islam.Changes in Hindu observance include the elimination of caste. Nevertheless, the Brahmin priest is recognized for ritual purposes. Brahmins were once considered to have lost their caste status once they traveled across the ocean, but the general population of Hindus today receive Brahmins with reverence as unique practitioners of essential and inherent duties. Today, many Brahmins in Trinidad are not full-time pandits (teachers) or priests but rather rely upon secular jobs for their income.Hinduism has also made its impact on the larger culture of Trinidad. The popular Hindu fes-tival DIVALI has become recognized as a national holiday in Trinidad with the growing influence of Hindu representation in government. Divali, also known as the festival of lights, is a much anticipated week-long event that honors LAKSHMI, the goddess of light, wealth, and prosperity. It is celebrated in the same way as Hindu communi-ties observe Divali internationally: families and communities join together, homes are decorated with traditional clay lamps, and festive meals and sweets are prepared for the celebration. The climax of the holiday occurs with the lighting of the lamps, which are arranged in homes, on porches, along streets, and throughout villages. The thousands of lamps are lit to dispel darkness and ignorance.In the 1920s, buildings known as koutias became a regular feature in the country’s land-scape. The structure, found throughout the Bhoj-pur region in India, traditionally served to house the temple caretaker. In Trinidad, koutias became additions to traditional temple structures and served as congregational halls. Many koutias were built in communities where there were no tradi-tional temples, in order to attract visits from SWA-MIS. The congregational halls became converted into central places of worship and began housing numerous Hindu deities. By the 1950s, the koutia temple became a unique feature of Trinidad’s Hin-duism. The structure of the koutia includes a long rectangular body with a flat or low-angled roof. When attached to a traditional temple it appears with a decorative dome at its front entrance. The temple typically holds up to 100 worshippers, who use the structure for congregational rituals, seminar talks with visiting swamis, and general worship services.At present, approximately 300,000 Hindus reside in Trinidad and Tobago. They make up about 23 percent of the country’s population and represent the second largest religion in the country after Christianity. Hinduism continues to thrive. Despite the incursion of secular influences, many young people remain interested in their faith and continue to support the preservation of Hindu traditions.Further reading: K. O. Laurence, A Question of Labour: Indentured Immigration into Trinidad and Brit-ish Guiana, 1875–1917 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Ashram B. Maharaj, The Pandits in Trinidad: A Study of a Hindu Institution (Trinidad: Indian Review Press, 1991); Steven Vertovec, The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns (New York: Routledge, 2000); ———, Hindu Trinidad: Religion, Ethnicity and Socio-Economic Change (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1992).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.