Friday, June 14, 2013

Auckland Church beats Hindus to mark Girmit Remembrance Day

An Auckland Church leads the way to pay a tribute to Girmitiyas

Guest Writer: Rajendra Prasad, author, Tears in Paradise
[Prologue and Epilogue by FIJI PUNDIT, Thakur Ranjit Singh]


There are some estimated 100,000 people of Indian origin in Auckland, with Indo-Fijians, and descendants of Indentured labourers comprising almost half at around 40-50,000. As the case in Fiji, majority are Hindus, almost 70%. When Indians were initially brought from India to Fiji from poorer states in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, almost all were Hindus, some Muslims. Christians were almost none, until some came from South India towards the tail-end of Girmit.

In Auckland, we have some Indo-Fijian descendants of original scrub-cutters who usd to come to New Zealand in large numbers on a 3-month contract in early 60s and some stayed back, as majority did in Fiji after Girmit. However the influx came in the aftermath of 1987 coup through the then Labour leader, David Lange’s soft heart for Indo-Fijians. They have been trickling in since then, with yours truly being a “green” migrant of less than ten years.

Hindus have multitudes of Mandalis and organisations in small pockets, without being able to unite in any wholesome body. When Ram Naumi comes, it takes more than half an hour on radio to tell where there are sitting and who are pracharaks and Pundits doing katha. One estimate says we have some 70-80 Ramayan and religious Hindu Mandalis/organisations in Auckland. [But none were present during Girmit Divas] While there are three Sanatan Sabhas, they do not really represent anybody, but concentrate of playing soccer or replicate what other Mandalis do.

In 2006, I approached Shiv Mandir at Holmes Road in Manurewa that is seen as an institution on Indo Fijians, to commemorate Girmit Divas. That is seven years ago. My pride was dented and enthusiasm for Girmit died when they demanded money for honouring those who were the very reason for us having Mandirs and religion. It was not until 2012 that Waitakere Indian Association, perhaps the best organised Indian body in New Zealand (none of them featured in the so – called Indian Hall of Sha..oops Fame) held first Girmit Remembrance Day followed later by formation of Fiji Girmit Foundation [that function coverage to come later]

However, as a Hindu, to be invited in a Church of some less than ten years, for commemoration of FIRST-EVER RELIGION-INITIATED event to honour our Girmitiya, I grabbed the opportunity, to visit this function with my wife. I had the first hand experience of what I felt shamed the multitudes of Hindu organisation, who in their three decade of beating drums and having grog parties in name of religion, could not come together to mark any Girmit Divas to date. The story and article below is by my friend, RAJENDRA PRASAD, who is a member of this Church and we happen to come from the same locality near Rarawai Sugar Mill in Ba, Fiji, and are uniquely passionate about honouring the memories of those who most Indo-Fijians have forgotten in their new-found wealth, fame and education, which all came from sacrifices, suffering and vision of Girmitiyas.


Rajendra Prasad (not to be mistaken with Dr Rajen Prasad, Labour List MP). Rajendra Prasad is author of Tears in Paradise-Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879 -2004. He is author of this article and one behind commemoration of Girmit, not only at Calvary Church but also at Fiji Girmit Foundation NZ where he is a founding Executive. He spent seven years in researching his book to fill the vacuum of Indo Fijian History. One so called Indian Hall of Fame remains a shame by not even mentioning this private humble gentleman who does not serve community with a view to getting an award. Indian Hall of Fame is a mere Shame without person of his standing, and it in no way represent Indo-Fijians.

On the 134th anniversary of Girmit, there is a glimmer of hope that the Girmitiyas, warriors of toil and soldiers of peace, will eventually be remembered annually, as a ‘disconnected’ community ultimately becomes connected to its foundational history. This sense of optimism is based on two events that took place in Auckland, New Zealand that have reached worldwide audience. One was organized by the Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church on May 17 and the other by the Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand at the Skipton Hall, Papatoetoe on May 18, 2013 [This coverage to come later, EXCLUSIVE to FIJI PUNDIT]. Both drew sizeable audience.

Sahebs (Colonisers in hats) and Coolies ( Indian Girmitiyas in Pagri or turban)- Girmit was the dress-code at Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church at Otahuhu, Auckland, and only of its kind ever held in Auckland. Ramayan mandalis and Sanatans can take a leaf from this little-talking but great-doing Church members who got together to remember those who most of us have forgotten- Girmitiyas.

EK SHAAM GIRMITIYON KE NAAM-an evening dedicated to memories of Indentured labourers. By CALVARY INDIAN ASSEMBLY OF GOD CHURCH, OTAHUHU, AUCKLAND.
Panghat pe Nandlal cher gayo re...people in the festive mood on stage at Calvary Temple, depicting dressing and costumes of Girmit Era.

The Youth Ministry of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church organized an evening, ‘Ek Shaam Girmitiyon ke Naam’ (An Evening of Tribute to Girmitiyas) on Friday May 17 that stuck a sombre note in the hearts and minds of the audience as never before. All the members of this Church (over 400) are from Fiji and they sat enthralled by the presentations made in remembrance of the Girmitiyas.
Ladies in Girmit costume. Has any Naari Sabha or other Indo-Fijian groups been able to do anything like this anywhere, to mark memory of Girmitiya forbears? 

 A Bidesia (folk song – a lamentation) composed in the sugar cane fields of Fiji by the Girmitiyas, capturing their pain, suffering and angst, was sung in traditional tune and accompanied by traditional music. Speakers strongly alluded to the theme ‘reconnecting, reclaiming and restoring Indo-Fijian history,’ which was noted for its absence in school curriculum.

Kali kothariya mein betey sari ratia, kis koh bataaye hum peeer re Bidesia---live singing of traditional lament song-Bidesia
Violence during the Girmit and its impact on successive generations was alluded to by Mrs Manju Verma, a senior social worker with Child, Youth and family who has closely observed the residual effect of violence on successive generations, perpetrated during the Girmit.

Mori gagri na tor...the traditional water container
The MC for the evening, Ron Chandra stole the show, wearing dhoti, shirt, pagdi and moustache. Other men also dressed in traditional attire but the women were not to be outdone, as they came clad in lehnga, the traditional top with veiled heads that added an aura to a memorable evening that brought tears, joy and celebration beyond everyone’s expectation.

Muche hoh toh Nathu Lal jaisi -. Master of Ceremony, Ron Kumar, left, with his father at Girmit function.
Those wearing traditional attire proudly displayed their costumes, which brought wide applause and also evoked memories of an era when clothes were essentially worn to cover the human body in accordance with the societal norms.
A close-up of the humble Girmit attire by ladies at the evening's function.
The evening concluded with a feast of supper that was specially prepared by qualified chefs who are members of the church. The occasion ignited a thirst for knowledge on Girmit and reconnection with our Girmitiya forebears and preparations are now underway to make it bigger, better and brighter for the 135th anniversary next year. The occasion is to reflect the spirit of the Girmitiyas that transcended the barriers of race, religion or caste, allowing others to share the occasion, as they did in their pain and suffering during the Girmit.

Yours truly, Thakur Ranjit Singh (left) and Rajendra Prasad, the engine room of Girmit commemoration with wives respectively Shashi Kala Singh (extreme right) and Aruna Prasad, next to her better half Rajendra .
Consequently, Pastor Andrew Pratap pledged that next year the doors of the Church will be opened to all those who are descendants of Girmitiyas to share an evening with the Church members. Display of Girmit artefacts and Girmit Dinner is expected to precede the function. Indeed, people will be encouraged to wear traditional clothes, which will be a physical manifestation of an era that evokes varied feelings and emotions.

Display of Girmit artefacts, including sugar cane, Indian wok 9karhaiya), coconut leaves broom, Sil/ Lohra (grinding stone), hurricane lamp, Ketli (kettle) etc.


As a Hindu I was ashamed that as over 80% of Girmitiyas were Hindus, and we have multitudes of bodies shouting praises of Hinduism, yet we could not come together to honour the memories of those who were honoured by a recent minority Church. It is an advice to the so-called Hindu Indo-Fijian leaders and priests to come out and learn from Indian Churches in what and how they do to advance the status of youth and unfortunate in our community. Our Brahmins and Pundits, who are the biggest beneficiaries of legacies of Girmit, failed to show at Girmit Remembrance Day at Skipton hall the next day on 18 May, 2013.  But that is another story, FIJI PUNDIT will tell later.

FIJI PUNDIT salutes Pastor Andrew Pratap and his Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church for their initiative and love for their heritage. My only wish is that our Hindu organisations, priests and Brahmins will also have some motivation to become functioning part of our community to contribute handsomely to the community well-being  and not only remain beneficiaries of a legacy we have forgotten. AMEN.

[Thakur Ranjit Singh -E-mail:]

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