Published 03 August 2012
Between 1879 and 1916, over 60,000 Girmityas, or indentured labourers, were shipped from Bengal and other parts of India to work on Fijian sugar plantations. One in three returned home after their contracts expired but most stayed on, forever changing the social landscape of this dreamy South Pacific nation.
Text and images by Ian Neubauer
Unlike most migrant groups that settle in faraway lands, Indo-Fijians have wholly retained their genetic and cultural identities. Historians attribute it to the legacy of race-based politics and other manifestations of ethnic tension that prevented assimilation between Indo-Fijians and their native Fijian hosts. But the argument discounts Indo-Fijians’ love for all things ‘Indian’ and their ineradicable desire to incorporate them in their day-to-day lives.
Most have never been to India nor do they aspire to, yet the vast majority speak Hindi. Many Indo-Fijian women still dress only in saris, while Hindu temples and shrines pockmark the land. And they’re absolutely fanatical about curries – an affliction they seem to have passed onto their hosts. But the real buffer to assimilation is their taboo against intermarriage. It took root in the colonial era when the practice was forbidden and has been flamed over the decades by Hindu notions of racial purity. Today, 95 percent of Indo-Fijians marry their own kind and to get a true measure of what it means to be Indo-Fijian, one must attend a wedding ceremony. Wrangling your way into one isn’t overly difficult. They usually take place under canopies at roadside locations and if you wander too close you could be dragged in – like it or not.
My crash-landing at an Indo-Fijian wedding was less deliberate. I was on assignment in the Sabeto Valley when I heard a hullabaloo of horns. A cavalcade of cars and buses came speeding down the road, the lead vehicle adorned with a mesh of pink garlands. I stood aside and took in the spectacle until one of the last cars pulled over and an Indian gent stuck his head out. “Where you going?” he asked. “To the next village,” I answered. “Jump in. I’ll give you a lift.” His name was Dev Mishrada and he was born in the Sabeto Valley and by the time we reached the village, Dev had invited me to join the wedding. An introduction to the father of the groom made it official and I was welcomed into the fold.
Indian weddings take place under canopies at roadside locations and if you wander too close you could be dragged in – like it or not.
The participation of relatives is extremely important here, for a Hindu wedding is more than the marriage of two people. It’s the marriage and merger of two families. The ceremony began on strip of grass outside the canopy where, one by one, the bride’s mother, grandmother, sisters and aunties applied kumkum to the groom’s temple and threw flowers over his head to drive away any impure thoughts. It was followed by a private blessing by the Hindu priest in Sanskrit that went on for the best part of an hour. All the while the groom remained tight lipped with a deeply solemn look on his face, as did the bride when she was finally walked down the aisle. Family members sat behind them in rows, cross-legged on the floor, while the guests, about 200 of them, sat on thin wooden benches – women on one side and men on the other as a loud Hindi band played between religious citations.
At the two-hour mark, the children and elderly moved to the dining area to eat. The food was strictly vegetarian but in no way bland: cinnamon fried rice, curried potato and eggplant, mango chutney, cucumber salad, coleslaw and roti baked fresh in a clay oven. The ceremony concluded with the kanyadaan, the giving away of the virgin. The bride’s father put his daughter’s right hand into the groom’s while reciting sacred verses and with that, the couple were officially wed. And while the proceedings would continue for several more days, the brief but colourful interlude gave me a Technicolor insight into the strength and vitality of the Indo-Fijian community.