GEORGETOWN, Guyana – President Bharrat Jagdeo wants to make perfectly clear the progress the Indo-Guyanese have made in the South American nation since arriving 173 years ago.
“In part, descendants of indentured laborers continue to make immense strides in the social, economic, cultural, education, political and trade union fields,” said the leader, who is Indo-Guyanese, during a May 5 commemoration of the docking of the first ship with laborers from India in 1838. “Indeed, they are actively engaged in every facet of life in our Guyanese society of today.”
Guyana has a population of 751,000, but 43.5% of its residents claim Indian ancestry, making it the country’s largest demographic, followed by those of African ancestry (30.2%), those with mixed ancestry (16.3%) and American Indians (9%), according to the Guyana Bureau of Statistics, an agency of the government.
The legacy of Indo-Guyanese started thousands of miles away in Calcutta, India, where 936 indentured workers were loaded onto two ships – the Whitby and the Hesperus – on May 5, 1838 to begin the long journey west across the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first of countless voyages that continued well into the early 1900s, according to those specializing in the country’s history.
Indentured servants – workers who were bought by customers and had to serve their owners until their debt was repaid – were brought to British Guiana to work on sugar and tobacco plantations.
Neaz Subhan, Chairman of the Indian Arrival Committee, an organization that seeks to preserve the traditions of the Indian culture, told Infosurhoy.com that while Indians in Guyana have maintained the cultures of the motherland, they also have fully integrated into society.
“History has shown that they have adapted quickly and integrated themselves under very oppressive conditions,” he said. “Our culture has evolved to a more contemporary position but it is heartening to see a vast amount stood steadfast in maintaining the traditions.”
Hinduism and Islam are the most prominent religions practiced by the majority of the Indo-Guyanese, whose evolving customs still resemble those of the Far East and Middle East.
In modern Guyana, weddings are performed with the bride and groom dressed in traditional Indian clothing influenced by the fashion of other races in the country. At funerals, prayers for the dead by Muslims and Hindus remain unchanged, as each group adheres to its traditions and beliefs.
Muslim women are not allowed in certain gatherings or prayers. But Muslims celebrate the holidays Eid and Kurbani (sacrifice of the cow), while Hindus continue to observe holidays such as Holi (burning of Holika) and Deepavali (festival of lights), among others.
While Guyana’s other races have participated in inter-racial marriages, Indo-Guyanese Indians don’t marry outside their race.
As for food, the blending of cultures made Indian cuisine more widely known and accepted as national dishes, such as gulab jamun, parasad (sweet coconut paste with raisins), sweet rice, dhal puri (Indian-style pancakes), curry chicken and seven curry, a dish of seven curries eaten at one meal, generally served at weddings.
and Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission Juan Edghill said during the “Harmony March,” an event for religious tolerance held in Georgetown on Feb. 4. “[We] have something here in Guyana that we can celebrate. We can showcase to the rest of the world that, while we are not yet perfect and there is still a long way for us to travel, the interfaith dialogue is alive in Guyana.”