The Tamil Presence in Mauritius

The Tamil presence in Mauritius forms part of the larger Indian diasporic migration. When we talk of Indian arrival in Mauritius, generally we focus on Indentured labour workers. The fact that Indians have been coming to Mauritius prior to 2nd November 1834 is often overlooked.

Therefore it was an appropriate, significant and timely occasion that this year to coincide with the 181st commemoration of the advent of Indenture Labourers on 2nd November the Yen Kannamma Crew of Rose-Hill organised a Tamil Festival at Plaza, Rose-Hill. This was a fantastic extravaganza coupled with a “Mela” with food courts and sale exhibitions. The Yan Kannamma Crew is a group of dynamic and enthusiastic young men who have taken the initiative of putting up the First Tamil Festival at national level in Mauritius. Their aim is to promote the rich cultural, linguistic and tangible and intangible heritage of the Tamil Community. This was to coincide with the Indenture Day, with 2nd November as a symbolical date.

For it is known that the first Tamils came to Mauritius much before the 2nd November. On that occasion, the 280th anniversary of their arrival too was commemorated at the monument of Sillumbu that was set up some years ago in the compound of the Plaza.

The cultural show presented and displayed the talents of some twenty local groups attached to different kovils and regional branches of the Mauritius Tamil Temples Federation and the Tamil Cultural Centre Trust and other organisations. The shows were vibrant, colourful, delightful and magnificently choreographed. There were also displays of customs and traditions, rites and rituals as well as ritual items. A traditional Tamil marriage with the Mappilai (Bridegroom) and Ponnu (Bride) ceremoniously dressed for the occasion was also showcased. Specific food preparations and drinks associated with various Tamil Ceremonies such as The Pongal were also displayed and on sale too to the delight of the huge crowd gathered for the occasion throughout the day. Gunesh Permal who has devoted his whole life fighting for the cause and promotion of Tamil identity and history in Mauritius exhibited several historical photographs artefacts and cuttings. One photograph showing the first Tamil tombs at Les Salines Cemetery (dating back to French period-1721) where a shivling is remarkably visible on one of the tombs retained attention.

The President of Yen Kannamma Crew, young Cannen Samynaden told me that this was his first experience at putting such a large show to bring to the knowledge of Tamils and the Mauritian nation in general the rich civilizational ethos of South India. The descendants of the first Tamil Indentured labourers also were made aware of the sacrifice, glories and hard work of their ancestors.

It is to be remembered that out of about 458,000 indentures who came from India, some 114,500 came from the Presidency of Madras from 1834 to 1924, a period of 90 years. They made up 25% of the total indentured population. Some Tamil traders too had come as free passengers and settled mostly in Port-Louis. Some of the indentures very quickly established their own farms and plantations after the termination of their contract. Indeed some were mill owners too. They set up the Young Men Hindu School in Port-Louis in the early 1900s. They were very active in the setting up of the Arya Sabha and promotion of its aims and objectives.

Tamil was taught in some schools as early as the mid-19th Century, and taught even at the Royal College Curepipe in the 19th century. However, gradually people gave up conversing in Tamil with their children over the decades. After the Ward Commission recommended that Asian languages should be removed from the formal education system in the 1940s, Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Education Minister took the decision to formalise the teaching of Asian languages in schools and brought Professor Ram Prakash to train oriental teachers at the Teacher’s Training School. This was the beginning of a new boost to the teaching of Tamil too among other Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Telugu and Marathi.

Since the 1970s, Tamil teaching was introduced in secondary schools. When the Mahatma Gandhi Institute was set up, Tamil textbooks and curriculum materials were prepared for both primary and secondary level at the Asian Language Department. Today several students prepare their BA, MA and PhD in Tamil. All the kovils, Federations and other socio- cultural organisations, the Tamil Cultural Centre Trust and the Tamil Speaking Union under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, the MGI/RTI have contributed and contribute immensely to the promotion and studies of Tamil and Tamil literature, Art, Music and Dance to the enrichment of society at large. The MBC also has established a 24- hour channel in Tamil feature films, documentaries and local programmes too with end of the year competitions in Tamil songs. Tamil is one of the oldest surviving and vibrant languages of the world.

The main districts from which indentures were recruited from South India included Trichinopoly, Madura, Ramnad, Salem, Tanjore, Chingleput, North and South Arcot, Malabar (Kerala) and Tinnevelly (Huge Tinker: 1974). The earlier workers who came during the French period came as early as 1735. They included free artisans, engineers and clerks and helped to build Port-Louis. Most of them were placed in Camp des Malabars on the site of the present Northern Bus Terminal. They came from the French comptoirs of Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahe and from Tranquebar, Coromandel along the Malabar coast of India. The Camp des Malabars stretched over a wide area of Port-Louis till the Plaine Verte known also commonly as Camp des Lascars.

The Camp des Malabars has left street names such as Goa Street, Calicut Street, Velore Street, Hyderabad, Madras Street, Alepo Street and so on.

Tamilians are also known as Dravidians and the name Dravida was given to South India in ancient times. The Tamil diaspora is spread all over the world. The Tamils are a very enterprising people and comprise f great stalwarts and litterateurs including Tirruvalluvar, Subramanya Bharati, CV Raman. The three Sangam Academics were established thousands of years ago before Christ. Tamils are noted for their martial, religious and mercantile activities. Besides their rich traditions of literature, art, architecture and sculpture, music and dance, jewellery, design, silk (sarees knowns as kanjivaram), the Ramayana of Kamba or Kamban is world known. Tamil has an unbroken literary heritage spanning two millennia. In Mauritius, some of this architectural magnificence can be seen in the famous Shri Sockalingum Meenatchee Ammen Temple known popularly as Kaylason that is Kailasam- Abode of Kailash. Others include Amma Tookay Kovil in Camp Diable. Since the setting up of the MGI and IGCIC and several private schools, thousands of youngsters have developed their talents in the exquisite dance form of ancient Bharat Natyam and in Carnatic Music and give excellent performances during National and regional cultural programmes. The Tamil cinema is a vibrant expression of the cinematics.

One cannot speak of complete Mauritian food, if one does not include the traditional tasty sept carris offered during celebrations or rasson, aplon, adousam and sweets like gateau gingeli, poutous etc. Several Tamil words have found their way in Creole and Mauritian Bhojpuri like “aiyo”, “mame”, “nandri”, “vanakam”. The traditional tornum decoration of palm leaves are a beautiful aspect of Tamil art during ceremonies. not to speak of brede mooroong, karipulai, muluktani. The Cavadee is one of the most profound manifestations of Hindu festivals particular to the Tamil population. Fire walking and “marche sur le sabre” (sword climbing) are popular religious occasions that form part of the local cultural environment, a legacy of Tamil Culture. The Tamil people observe their rites and traditions as set by the Panchangam and are profound and pious devotees. Hinduism has been revived by great saints from the South. Mauritius was known to ancient Tamil Traders and maritime navigators.

  • Published in print edition on 6 November 2015

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