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Religious Heritage PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Tuesday, 25 July 2006

1. Hindus of  South America 

2. Religion in St Lucia by Richard Cheddie

3. Muslims in Guyana 

4. The Revival of Hinduism in the West: The inspiring story of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Trinidad, Guyana, England and Canada


Hindus of South America





















Introduction: How differently Hinduism developed in the adjacent nations of Suriname and Guyana

The Indian subcontinent has not been the only source of major Hindu migrations in the last 50 yeah. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have emigrated from the former British colonies of Trinidad and Guyana to America and England and from the former Dutch colony of Suriname to Holland. These communities, whose forefathers left India 150 years ago, have unique elements today, some the result of colonial policies, others customs preserved intact from the mid-19th century India of their ancestors. Hinduism Today Trinidad correspondent Anil Mahabir visited the region, meeting with religious leaders and lay Hindus. Here is his engaging report on the countries similarities and differences.

The day I arrived in Guyana, I traveled 45 miles by speedboat from one bank of the Essequibo River to the next. For the first time in my fife, I was standing on one side of a river unable to see the other side.

My whole country of Trinidad, in fact, would fit inside this river, only slightly overlapping the banks. We don’t have rivers back home, just streams, canals and ditches. Rivers aside, there was much that was similar to Trinidad-every Hindu home flies the jhandi flags in front, the Ramayana is the main text, the Deities and festivals are the same, the food is the same. The similarities are, in part, because of common origins in India, but also seemed to have been shaped by a shared Caribbean experience.

I was most struck by the temple culture of both countries. Wherever I went, I found simply-built temples that exhibited a most compelling beauty. I had not felt this way about the temples in my own homeland. Obviously the Guyanese and Surinamese take great pride in’ their temple buildings.

Despite the fact that Guyana and Suriname sit side-by-side, their histories are vastly different. Guyana was colonized by the British, Suriname by the Dutch. The obvious result of this was that Guyanese learned to speak English, while Surinamese learned Dutch. The colonial policy of each country was also very different with regard to religion. The Dutch pursued a “hands off’ attitude as far as the culture of the Hindus was concerned. In Guyana, explained Swami Aksharananda of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of Guyana, “The British sought to interfere, control and convert the Hindus and Muslims. Many missionaries were brought to Guyana to evangelize the Indian population and to destroy their language and culture. That is why Hindi has persisted in Suriname and not in Guyana.” This is the same tactic the British used in India. “During the colonial period,” Pundit Reepu Daman Persaud, head of the Dharmic Sabha and Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture ( This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ), told me, “the Hindus were forced to convert to get jobs in the public service, even if they did not want to. Many who converted continued to be Hindus within the private confines of their homes.”

Devanand Jokhoe ( This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ), an economist in Suriname, explained, “Conversion was not an official policy of the Dutch as it was of the British in Guyana. Hindus were not forced to convert as a prerequisite to get jobs. That is why less than five percent of all Indians living in Suriname are Christians. Some non-Indians can also speak Hindi, for example, the Javanese and Blacks who live in Indian villages.”

Suriname, who’s 121,500 Hindus comprise 27% of the population, is the only country in the Western Hemisphere where all the Indians speak Hindi. That this is so after so many years away from India-is amazing. In neighboring Guyana, where 238,000 Hindus form 34% of the population, it is the opposite. Almost no one speaks Hindi. Everyone speaks English. This is a perfect example of the differences in colonial rule between the British and the Dutch. The British sought to destroy everything Indian and Hindu, while the Dutch allowed it to flourish. So, from the youngest toddler to the oldest nani, the Suriname Hindus all speak Hindi.

I was struck by the divisions among Hindus in Guyana. There were people whom I met who did not want me to speak to others, and even went out of their way to prevent me from doing so. Perhaps this is related to the overall pessimism of the Guyanese. Even the very wealthy talk of migrating. Even so, paradoxically, most seem quite happy and go about their daily routines with smiles on their faces. They were also very hospitable to me. The country’s president himself, Bharrat Jagdeo, loaned me a car and driver to tour the capital. Where else would that happen?

In Suriname, my lack of any fluency in Hindi hindered a smooth rapport with several in the country, especially among those who spoke little English. Unfortunately, this included most of the pundits, and I found myself relying upon intellectuals, businessmen and others for information.

The first Hindus: It is generally agreed in both countries that it was India’s poorest who emigrated to the West. They were inclined to leave the India of the mid-19th century because of famine, drought and poverty. The first Indians arrived in Guyana on May 5, 1838. Pundit Reepu Persaud pointed out that these were the first to bring Hinduism to the Americas, not Swami Vivekananda. The first shipload of Indians to Suriname arrived June 5, 1873. Trinidad’s first group came in 1845. Slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863 and in Guyana in 1834. Freed slaves refused to continue working the sugar plantations. Several nationalities were brought as indentured servants to replace them, but only the Indians adapted well to the harsh tropical climate.

The Indians came from Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar, an area known as Bhojpuri’s Belt-Bhojpuri being a regional dialect of Hindi. Most were farmers, though a few Brahmins also came, even though this was against the policy of the British, who considered the more educated Brahmins as potential trouble makers. Perhaps ten percent returned to India from Guyana after their contracts were fulfilled, but later almost none did so. Pundit Persaud said his parents went back to India in 1930 and then returned to Trinidad. He said, “The West Indies was generally recognized as a place better to live than India.”

Between 1873 and 1916, 34,000 Indians came to Suriname. Nearly 23,000 stayed. As in Guyana, after an initial group which returned to India, hardly anyone left. If they did it was to go to Holland, as is the case today, according to historians Hassan Khan and Sandew Hira.

It is believed the ratio of migrants was 100 men to 20 women, creating enormous social problems. According to Swami Aksharananda, “Indian men forged unions with black women, not marriages.” I could not find out what became of the descendants of those unions, whether they were in the Black or the Indian communities of today.

The early years: The plantation system had a dramatic effect on Hinduism. People were not allowed to move from one plantation to another. They were sequestered and had to get passes to leave in any event, plantation work left very little time for anything else. According to Swami Aksharananda, “Only Sunday was left to the Hindus to practice Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism became a kind of Sunday thing in the early days in Guyana.” The legacy of this is the popularity of Sunday morning temple worship in this part of the world.

During indentureship, there were tremendous efforts by the Hindus to assert themselves as Hindus. This was so even though the colonial policy of the British in Guyana was to crush Hinduism at all costs and Christianize “the heathens.”

“The policy of the Dutch in Suriname was more relaxed.” says Anoop Ramadhin. “Hindus were more at liberty there to practice there religion. There were no forced conversions,” he continued. “The Dutch separated the various groups from one another and allowed them to live in their own villages. That is why today you have Black, Indian and Javanese villages. Even the Bush Negroes are set apart.”

HVP Bronkhurst, a Euro-Asian missionary and writer says, “Hindu pundits in Guyana would go from home to home getting people to gather and sing the Ramayana.” The Gita became a major text. People would gather at nights. This was how they were able to maintain their religion. The only thing which kept them going was the memory of Rama and Hanuman. Similarly, in Suriname the Ramayana reigned supreme.

Later, Guyanese-born Hindus took up the cause of Hinduism. One of those early pioneers was Dr. J.B. Singh, who is credited with heightening Hindu consciousness, setting up Hindu organizations and fighting for the cremation rights of Hindus. In fact, he was the first Hindu to be cremated in Guyana, in 1956. Prior to that, Hindus had to be buried, even though this was very contrary to the Hindu faith.

Swami Purnananda came directly from Bengal in India in the mid-20th century. He established Bharat Sevashram Sangha, which is today called the Guyana Sevashram Sangha and run by Guyanese-born Swami Vidyanand. Swami Purnananda popularized the “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna” mantra. He printed a small book called Aum Hindutvam, which was the first catechism or question-and-answer booklet for Hindus in Guyana. He developed mantras for different occasions and popularized havan service (the fire ceremony). The present-day Guyana Sevashram Sangha is unique among organizations here. It is the only institution in the Caribbean which has produced its own swami. It is the only institution which trains young men to become bramacharis. It offers free medical services to all groups in society

The Surinamese I met did not seem to have quite the same keen sense of history as the Guyanese. In general they said it was the elders and the pundits who kept Hinduism alive in the early days. More recently, the name of Nanan Panday, leader of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha of Suriname, is mentioned as the key personality. “He has been at the helm of Hindu leadership for 40 years,” says Anoop Ramadhin. The names of Pundit Haldhar Mathuraprasad and T Soerdjbaille, leader of the Gayatri Mandir, have also been mentioned as playing key roles in the Hindu community of Suriname.

Conversion: Swami aksharananda is firm on this question: “Conversion is very high. In fact, conversion in Guyana is defined as ‘conversion from Hinduism to Christianity,’ nothing else. The Muslims hardly ever convert. The Christians do not convert. It is only the Hindus who are coaxed into dispensing with their religion.” At the beginning of the 2oth century, he says, “about one percent of the Indian population was Christians, now it is about 15%-a 15-fold increase in one century. The Pentecostals are doing the most conversions.”

Pundit Reepu Daman Persaud agreed, “The Pentecostals are studying the demography of the country. They attack rural areas where they believe the Hindus are more vulnerable, illiterate or weak. Since we have found out the strategy, the Dharmic Sabha is going into the same areas and combating their anti-Hindu propaganda.”

I met Parmanand Samlal, who visits the homes of converted Hindus and gets them to reconvert to Hinduism. I had never heard of such a program before. He said he has achieved four re-converts for the year 2000 so far. He is a member of the Dharmic Sabha and a “worshiper,” as he put it, of Pundit Reepu. Pundit Reepu is highly respected in Guyana as one who has always stood for the Indians and Hindus, even in difficult political times, whenever abandoned Guyana for better circumstances, though easily available to him in another country.

Dirgopal Mangal, says conversion is on the decrease. He told me of Blacks in Guyana who attend Hindu temples, giving the example of “Minister Collymore, who attends the temple every Sunday morning in Parika.”

Suriname is different. Radjen Koemar-singh of Suriname ( This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ) told me there is some conversion from Hinduism but not much, due to the binding factor of Hindi. Accountant Anoop Ramadhin agreed, “Conversion from Hinduism in Suriname is less than one percent. Some Javanese are also Hindus.”

Schoolteacher Algoe Harrynarain said, “The Christian churches in Suriname pay poor Hindus to convert. They have funding from abroad. They are well organized. The Hindus do not have such funding.” He said the Jehovah Witnesses pay a salary to Hindus to convert to Christianity.

While conversion exists in both countries, it is not on a large scale, and meets active resistance from Hindus, even with their limited resources. In my entire visit, I did not meet a single Christian Indian, and I think this says a lot about the situation.

Intermarriage: As in Trinidad and Tobago, intermarriage between Hindu and Muslim Indians is very common in Guyana, constituting perhaps eight percent of all weddings. Black/Indian marriages are rare. Hindu activist Bharat Kissoon estimates that in six out of every ten Guyanese Hindu/Muslim marriages, the wedding follows the Islamic line. The result of the unions are combined names such as Kishore Mohammed (a Hindu), Salisha Singh (a Muslim) and Anil Khan- Such names are also common in Trinidad. Suriname is much different, and while I could not find any official statistics, intermarriage was obviously rare.

Hindu activists in Guyana say that intermarriage has been on the increase over the past ten years. Normally both parties are allowed to keep and practice their faiths, though some Hindu girls convert to Islam. It is very rare to see a Muslim in such a union convert to Hinduism. Hindu and Muslim leaders are silent on these unions for fear of possibly rocking the boat or destroying whatever Indian unity exists. Politicians dare not speak of it either.

Country politics: The prevailing view is that, culturally, Guyana is at it lowest ebb since Independence was granted in 1966. The “oppressive” reign of the Peoples’ National Congress PNC, the party of the Blacks, and what one person called its ethnic “insensitivity to Indian culture” is seen by most Hindus as one of the principal reasons why the Indian culture is undeveloped.

Another reason is the constant stream of emigration from Guyana to other parts of the world. “Migration took our best people,” says Pundit Persaud. “Our best artists, dancers, singers, musicians left for greener pastures because they simply could not make a living producing Indian culture in a country where the political directorate was hostile to Indian culture,” says one activist who declined to give his name.

Swami Aksharananda said, “The national culture in Guyana is often portrayed as a Black and Creole culture which neglects or deliberately shuns the Indian output. The present majority Indian government is often accused of being an ‘Indian government.’ [That is, partial to Indians.] They are afraid to develop Indian culture, afraid of being called racist. This is not my perception, but that of most Guyanese. Indian culture gets little funding. The National Dance School is a Black dance school, for example.” I was told that Guyana does not have a single all Indian radio or TV station.

There is more optimism and enthusiasm for things Hindu in Suriname. Indian musician Radjen Koemarsingh noted, “There is an Indian cultural center, seven radio stations with an all-Indian format and four television stations exclusively devoted to Indian programming.” Hindi is taught in some schools as an official language.

Schoolteacher Algoe Harrynarain commented, “Yes, emigration has hurt us, but there is a cultural revival right now. In any case because we all speak Hindi here, the situation is different to that of Guyana. It is difficult for the culture to be lost.”

Emigration is even more a factor here. Some 250,000 Surinamese now live in Holland, compared to just 450,000 in Suriname itself-making this country one of the most sparsely populated in the world. A dismal economic situation continues to motivate people to leave. I even met teachers and businessmen with stable jobs who were still anxious to migrate if they got the chance.

Hindu home life: Most Hindu homes in both countries have a small shrine or prayer house located at the front of the home. Like the houses, these will vary in nature and appearance, depending on the wealth of the owner. There is also a jhandi or flag hoisted on bamboo next to the shrine or by itself, as with one I saw in a rice field.

The main daily observance in both countries is the pouring of water early in the morning. Water from a brass pot is used to bathe a Siva Lingam located at the base of the jhandi. Some Hindus also chant bhajans and meditate afterwards. Those who are free from employment may go to the temple on a daily basis. One day a week is set aside for haven, or fire worship ceremony, and fasting from salt and meat. At least once a year, most Hindus will try to have a grand puja or Ramayana Yagna, an event where the entire community is invited to participate. The biggest festivals of the year are Diwali and Phagwa (Holi) in both countries. Lesser festivals include Ram Navami, Sivaratri and Karthik Nahan.

The main Deity in both countries is Hanuman, because of the conquering role he played in the Ramayana and His popularity in the Bhojpuri Belt, whence came most of the original Hindu immigrants. Other Deities include Siva, Durga, Kali and Ganesha.

There would seem to be more vegetarians in Suriname than in Guyana. Estimates are that about 10% of Hindus in Suriname are vegetarians. Less than five percent of Hindus in Guyana are vegetarians. They are mainly the pundits and the swamis and the spiritual leaders. However, Dr Satish Prakash of the Araya Samaj says that vegetarians among his group in Guyana are as much as 35%. Bi4t overall it is not popular. One activist told me, “When Lord Rama was in exile in the jungle with Sita, according to the Ramayana, were they not eating meat to survive 14 years? And if Lord Rama could eat meat, why can’t I?” I conducted a brief poll out of curiosity and I found that most Hindus I talked to in both countries do not know what ahimsa is, or that it is an integral part of Hinduism. Nonviolence remains an esoteric, opaque, Gandhian concept, not taught by the leaders or drummed in by the pundits. Little or no reference is made by anyone to the Vedas as the source of Hinduism, or the Upanishads or even the Mahabharata, except for the Bhagavad Gita. The Ramayana, as in Trinidad, is the main text.

As is unfortunately the case among too many Hindus, priest-bashing is common in both Suriname and Guyana. Many I met said the priests were “not up with the times,” “too concerned with ritual” and other complaints similar to what is heard in Trinidad. There are some legitimate concerns because of the emigration of some of the best pundits to other countries. This has broken up the traditional father-to-son training system, and now some become pundits without being properly trained.

Suicide in Guyana: Many people I talked to in Guyana expressed concern about the high rate of suicide among the Hindu community and the fact that virtually no one is doing anything to address the problem from a Hindu angle. Suicide is not a major problem, among Surinamese Hindus. Dr. Vivekanand Brijmohan, a forensic pathologist in the Berbice district, said the suicide rate among Hindus in Guyana is “alarming.” In one three-year period in Berbice, there were 197 suicides, 160 of them Indian males, mainly Hindus. Brijmohan said, “It is a cultural thing. Hindus are more strict in the household than the blacks. Certain Indians have a longing for freedom, to go out at night, etc. Some of them do not get that freedom due to their strict Hindu upbringing. If makes them dissatisfied with life, depressed. Alcoholism and marijuana addiction is another cause of suicide.”

Swami Aksharananda runs AYUPSA: a National Centre for Suicide Prevention. He sponsors a national health program which attempts to eradicate the prevalence of suicide among the Hindu community. He does this by holding seminars, making press releases and going into the villages for direct contact with the Hindu people, particularly the youths.

Jailhouse preacher: Bharat Kissoon is a Hindu activist and retired economist who ministers to the Hindu inmates in the Georgetown prison every Sunday. He told me, “I was drawn to this work because of the particular case of a Hindu prisoner in Trinidad, Dole Chadee, who was hanged last year. The day before he was hanged he longed for a pundit to do his final rites. He could not find any Hindu who was willing to go. to the prison and, therefore, he had no choice but to resort to a Christian pastor.”

There is a famous story here, that of Salim Yaseen, a condemned prisoner who was about to he hanged on the 12th of September 1999. He allegedly told Bharat that before leaving he wanted to hear the Hanuman Chalesa, a traditional scripture in praise of Lord Hanuman. He got his wish, and he was not hanged due to a legal loophole. Now, according to Bharat, “all prisoners want to hear the Hanuman Chalesa.”

Connections with India: The Surinamese I spoke with said they don’t think that Hindus ‘in India even know there are Hindus living in Suriname. They could not recall any visit by a major Hindu leader, nor recount any significant assistance received from India in any way.

A few swamis have come to Guyana. Early ones, such as Swami Chinmayananda and Rishi Ram, came in the 1960s and helped develop Hinduism. But those coming today, said Pundit Persaud, “do not stay and assist us in developing Hinduism. They come to talk about yoga and meditation only.” In Trinidad, travel agencies often advertise “journey back to your roots” programs to India. In Guyana and Suriname there are greater economic restraints, and those who, have the money to travel use it to emigrate.

The future: Both countries have suffered from the chronic brain drain and seem to be perpetually entangled in the politics of racial and religious division. Both countries are relatively poor, but the people do not want to be labeled as such. They feel ashamed when people from the outside boldly come to, visit, analyze and recommend solutions for their assumedly insufficient social and economic existence. They are content with living very simple lives, not caring whether or not they have a cell phone or a computer. Dharma dictates daily how they should act. The jhandis flying proudly before every Hindu home, rich or poor, are their own statement of identity. From cower roaming the roads freely in Guyana, to pundits walking miles to puja service, I believe Hinduism, though simple, will never die in this part of South America.








[Editor’s Note: This article has been reproduced from January-February, 2000 issue of Hinduism Today.]






"The younger generation of Caroos have no idea what our history is, and our parents do not even seem to know about it themselves..."

"After the Indians were brought to the Caribbean the various churches saw an opportunity to increase their flocks and to break the Indians away from their "pagan" and "idolatrous" behavior. 

They aggressively pursued this in most of the colonies, but their successes never eclipsed the cultural teachings in those colonies that had large number of immigrant Indians such as Guyana and Trinidad, since these colonies had a large enough population that included Brahmin priests and Muslim teachers to officiate in ceremonies and create Hindu and Muslim temples.

In the smaller islands this was not the case and the Christian churches were able make great headway in their teachings.

The successes that they did have in Trinidad and Guyana and Jamaica taught the Christian missionaries a few things, that for the Indians their "religion" of Hinduism and Islam is more than just a small part of their lives, it was their life.

Everything the Indians did was steeped in it, without being "religious": way they dressed, food they ate, holidays, way they addressed their family members, the way and what they planted, worshipped, sang, et cetera, ad infinitum.

So they had to strip all this way in a deliberate methodical way.

In the beginning it was not a problem for the Indians to practice their culture. In the early records of St. Lucia it was not uncommon to see the first laborers dressed in traditional clothing, practicing ceremonies such as Diwali and Hosay. When the churches started their conversion scheme, they established schools which if the Indians wanted their children to gain an education they were required to adopt Christianity.

At first many refused, but some took them up on it, since it was one way to other jobs than working on the plantations. The other thing they did was to restrict the types of clothing that the laborers could wear, even going as far as having them changed into more "appropriateî clothing aboard the ship before being disembarkation and allotment to estates. 

When an individual was converted to Christianity he/she was given a European name (some of the plantation owners were French so they Indians received French names on those estates) and highly discouraged from using their original Indian name.   

They then worked on further breaking the castes by telling them as a Christian it was their duty to marry another Christian and not a Hindu.  It was very effective when the women were converted since the ratio of Indian women to men brought over during indentureship was sometimes 1 to 20 and later on roughly 1 in 5.  The next stage of the indoctrination was to teach that their cultural practices were inferior and since they are outside the Christian doctrine, the practices were not recognized. So a couple married in the Hindu custom had no rights are far as the laws were concerned. Even the historical stories of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Vedas were frowned upon and their telling was discouraged. 

The panchayat system of settling disputes that was a mainstay of the Indian village life was then replaced by having to use the English judicial system. Over time all these helped to erode the culture of the Indians in St. Lucia.  They started to believe the lies that they were told. What was even worse they started to teach the lies to their children.  [These lies being that Indian way of life and their culture was inferior - something to be shunned and be ashamed of. 

Children were led to believe that the familial system of respect for their elders and their cultures were antiquated and had no place in the modern world.]

What might have confused them further was that the various denominations used to tell those that became baptized in one church had to be rebaptized in another church because the teachings of the other was not right, and the Indian might have been given another name. 

I have cousin that in late 1990's wanted to give her daughter an Indian name and the Priest in the Catholic Church initially refused to perform the baptism because one of the names was associated with one of the Hindu goddesses.  He told her that she would have to choose another name. So this continues today. 

In the late 50ís and the 70's many of the younger Indians at the time started to turn their back on their culture despite the urging of their parents to the contrary.  It did not help matters any when many of the older males in the families had started to go find work in other islands leaving their spouses to raise the families at home and things deteriorated even further.

Schools in St. Lucia do not spend much time teaching about the Indians and their contribution to the islands history and economy, so the younger generation is not learning it at home, not learning it in the churches,  and are not learning about it in the schools.

There are no virtually no celebrations of various Hindu/Muslim holidays in St. Lucia.
There are hardly any historical documents on the islands that a person can read to find out about the past. 

I can think of only a handful of articles that even mention that there are Indians in St. Lucia much less go into any depth about what they have contributed. 

Most articles only say that Indians influenced the cuisine of the island. 
I do not blame the authors of those articles. It's because they have no source information from which to draw any conclusion data. 

The Indo-St. Lucians are a lost people without any firm connection to their past.   

Imagine that the last shipload to arrive was only 112 years ago. There are still St. Lucians alive today whose parents came from India.  There are a few  that still speak some Hindi ( Oudh/ Bhojpuri dialects), some that still sings the old songs, and some that still have knowledge to pass on.

This is why the generation that once turned their back on their culture and later became educated enough to realize its importance to one's self, can help teach the younger ones of this importance, not to convert them back to Hinduism or Islam, but to let them know who they are.

"To make people get more united, you need to be proud of yourself first. And to be proud of yourself you need to know who you are, where you come from, what your roots is.  If you know your own history then you know who you are. " - Piyapas Bhirombhakdi - Lady in waiting to Queen Sirikit of Thailand

Personally, I cannot continue to live a lie once my eyes have been opened to the truth, no matter how unpopular the move to throw off the bondage of that lie may be.

In my visits to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America I have seen much of the strength of many people who have held on to their culture, some for thousands of years, despite what conquerors have tried to do to strip them of their beliefs.

There is nothing wrong with being one people out of many.
But I believe that one's culture should be studied and passed on.

Richard Cheddie



Muslims in Guyana: History, Traditions, Conflict and Change

Sun. November 5, 2006

The birth of Islam in Arabia and its later spread to South Asia and Africa had rippling effects not only on that region's social and political history, but international ramifications as it spread from there to other parts of the world, including Guyana. Islam travelled to the shores of Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad largely because of the institutions of slavery and indentureship.

Guyana is a multi-ethnic republic situated on the northern coast of South America). The country is inhabited by nearly one million people who are heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity and religious affiliation. Amerindians are the indigenous people of Guyana. In the seventeenth century the country became populated by waves of immigrants brought in under colonialism which introduced plantation slavery and the indenture system. Thus the Dutch and later the British colonial mercantile interests shaped the socio-cultural environment of the country. Guyana remained a British colony until 1966 when it achieved independence which marked the transfer of political power to the Afro-Christian population.

However, the majority are of South Asian descent and form roughly 51% of the population. Yet, they remained disenfranchised until the 1992 general elections. South Asians, who are mostly Hindus and Muslims, have always had a cordial relationship among themselves. It would seem that these two groups had come to a mutual understanding of respecting each other's space while culturally and even linguistically identifying with each other. In fact, Hindus and Muslims share a history of indentured labour, both having been recruited to work in the sugar cane plantations. They came from rural districts of British India and arrived in the same ships. Furthermore, Muslims and Hindus in Guyana did not experience the bloody history of partition as did their brethren back in the subcontinent.

Also, the lack of Hindu/Muslim friction in Guyana may be attributed to the Cold War and to their common foe--the Afro dominated government, which practised discrimination against them .

According to the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG), there are about 125 masjids scattered throughout Guyana. Muslims form about 12% of the total population. Today in Guyana there are several active Islamic groups which include the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG), the Hujjatul Ulamaa, the Muslim Youth Organization (MYO), the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT), the Guyana Muslim Mission Limited (GMML), the Guyana United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman (GUSIA), the Tabligh Jammat, the Rose Hall Town Islamic Center, and the Salafi Group, among others. Two Islamic holidays are nationally recognized in Guyana: Eid-ul-Azha or Bakra Eid and Youman Nabi or Eid-Milad-Nabi. In mid-1998 Guyana became the 56th permanent member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Guyana's neighbour to the east, Suriname, with a Muslim population of 33%, is also an OIC member state.

The Arrival of Islam in Guyana

Islam was formally reintroduced in Guyana with the arrival of South Asian Muslims in the year 1838.(n1) Yet one cannot dismiss the fact that there was a Muslim presence in Guyana even earlier than that date.(n2) There were Muslims among African slaves who were brought to Guyana. Mandingo and Fulani Muslims were first brought from West Africa to work in Guyana's sugar plantations. However, the cruelty of slavery neutralized the Muslims and the practice of Islam vanished until the arrival of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent in the year 1838. However, to this day Muslims in Guyana are referred to as Fula, linking them to their West African ancestry. Mircea Elida writes that `from 1835-1917, over 240,000 East Indians, mostly illiterate, Urdu-speaking villagers, were brought to Guyana. Of these 84% were Hindus, but 16% were Sunni Muslims.'(n3)

There has also been a Shia and later an Ahmadiyya presence in Guyana. However, their numbers are minuscule and too insignificant to cause any friction. The Muslims who migrated to Guyana came from many different areas of the Indian subcontinent, including Uttar Pradesh, Sind, the Punjab, the Deccan, Kashmir and the North West Frontier (Afghan areas). In fact, one of Guyana's oldest Mosques, the Queenstown Jama Masjid, was founded by the Afghan community which had apparently arrived in this country via India.(n4) Afghan and Indian Muslims living in this area laid the foundation for the Masjid. Thus according to several accounts,(n5) there were educated Muslims among these early arrivals. One Imam reports there were two hafizul Qur'an who were `residing in Clonbrook, East Coast Damerara, bearing the last name Khan'.(n6)

The South Asian Connection

The history of Guyanese Muslims is directly linked to the Indian subcontinent, but it is a history that has been ignored by Caribbean scholars of East Indian history. One aspect of this history that has drawn much debate among the different scholars and Islamic organizations in Guyana is the `Indo-Iranian' connection. When this term is used in this article it refers to the linguistic and cultural aspects that the Guyanese Muslims inherited from West and South Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia). Iran and Central Asia played a key role in the history and civilization of South Asian Muslims.

The spread of Islam to India is attributed to the Central Asian Turks who adopted Persian as the official language of the Mughal Court in India. If Islam did not travel to the subcontinent it would have never had such an impact in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad. Persianized Central Asian Turks under the leadership of Muhammad Zahiruddin Babur established the Mughal dynasty and brought cultural ambassadors from Iran, Turkey and Central Asia to India.

Today in Guyana there is much controversy as to the cultural aspects that Muslims brought from the subcontinent beginning with their migration in the year 1838. There exist two camps in Guyana, one comprising the younger generation who prefer to get rid of the `Indo-Iranian' heritage, and the other the older generation who would like to preserve this tradition. Some link this tradition to Hinduism and a continuous attempt is being made to purge `cultural Islam' of `un-Islamic' innovations (bida'). Van der Veer notes that these forms, brought by the indentured immigrants to the Caribbean, were heavily influenced by the cultural patterns of the subcontinent, as opposed to those of the Middle East.(n7) Aeysha Khan quotes Samaroo: `in modern day Trinidad and Guyana, where there are substantial Muslim populations, there is much confusion, often conflict, between the two types of Islam'.(n8) In Guyana today the younger generation who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic over Urdu and view South Asian traditions as un-Islamic. In the subcontinent Urdu helps to define a South Asian Muslim. In fact, Urdu and Islam for South Asian Muslims define one's cultural identities.

The Language: Urdu

Urdu, a common language developed in the Indian subcontinent as a result of a cultural and linguistic synthesis, was brought to Guyana by South Asian Muslims from the subcontinent where its history goes further. After the Mughal invasion of India, the mingling of Arabic, Turkic, Persian and Sanskrit languages developed into a new `camp' language called Urdu. The word `Ordu' or Urdu, which is Turkish in origin, means `camp' and is mostly associated with an army camp. It was towards the end of the Mughal rule in India that Urdu language was given a national status. The language was nurtured at three centres in India: the Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow. Once Urdu was adopted as the medium of literary expression by the writers in these metropolises, its development was rapid, and it soon replaced Persian as the court language and principal language of Muslim India.(n9) However, in the 1930s Urdu suffered reverses with the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India. A new people's language was developed replacing the Persian script with the Devangari script and it was called Hindi.

Urdu, distinguished from Hindi by its Persian script and vocabulary, is today the national language of Pakistan and one of the official languages of India. It is one of the most popular spoken languages of South Asia, and has acquired a wide distribution in other parts of the world, notably the UK, where it is regarded as the major cultural language by most subcontinent Muslims.

In Guyana today, Urdu is popular among the Indo-Guyanese who watch films and listen to music from the Bombay film industry. Contributing to its role as the chief vehicle of Muslim culture in South Asia is its important secular literature and poetry which is closely based on Persian models. However, Urdu is taking a backstage in Guyana due to English language proliferation and the Muslim orthodox movement leading to a focus on Arabic.

Only one Islamic organization in Guyana today, the United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman (which is also the oldest surviving Islamic organization in Guyana), offers Urdu in its instructional programme for teaching the qasida (hymns that sing praises to God and the Prophet). They regularly hold qasida competitions throughout the country and award prizes to encourage participation. Qasida is part of the `Indo-Iranian' legacy. It is an attempt by the Anjuman to preserve the uniqueness of Guyana's Muslim heritage. Though the students were generally told that they were learning Arabic, it was Urdu that was being taught. Having migrated to New York, an ustad (teacher) from a village in Guyana remarked to the author `the Arabic here is different than that which I was teaching at the madrasah in Guyana'. Little did he realize that it was Urdu and not Arabic that he was teaching back in Guyana. Some are embarrassed to say that they were teaching Urdu while calling it Arabic.

This is one of many stories that echo throughout Guyana. One remembers hearing the so called Arabic alphabet: `alif, be, pe, se, jim che, he... zabar', and `pesh'. In Arabic there is no `pe', `che', `zabar', and `pesh'. After familiarizing oneself with Urdu, one realizes that it was Urdu that was being taught in Guyana. Ahmad Khan a trustee of the Queenstown Jama Masjid says that for most Guyanese Muslims their mother tongue was Urdu.(n10) However, by 1950 Urdu started fading with the introduction of Islamic texts in English and it has now almost disappeared.(n11) According to Pat Dial, a Guyanese historian, during the early twentieth century Urdu and Arabic were taught in the madrasah annex of the Jama Masjid and the young were introduced to the Namaz. In those early years, far more people spoke Urdu than English.(n12)

Some Questionable Traditions

In any civilization, there is cultural synthesis. The usage of Urdu is by no means related to Hinduism. Even though it is indigenous to the subcontinent it remains a legacy of the Muslim period. Other aspects of this heritage include the tradition of qasidas, tazim-o-tawqir, milaad-sharief, the dua and the nikkah, all performed in Urdu. In Guyana, as in Trinidad, as well as in other countries in the Caribbean, Muslims are saying the fatiha over food, celebrating the Prophet's birthday (milad-un-nabi) and ascension (miraj) and singing qasida, all in Urdu.(n13) However, the debate over these very rituals has created deep frictions among Guyanese Muslims. Similar traditions are prevalent in the subcontinent, as well as in Central Asia, the Caucasus region, Turkey, Iran and other Islamic lands. The different Sufi orders that were responsible for the spread of Islam in many parts of the world had patronized these traditions. Their orthodoxy or unorthodoxy has become the subject of major debates everywhere. We shall review below some of these `questionable' traditions.


The Urdu term tazim is well known among Guyanese Muslims and it constitutes an established practice inherited from their forefathers. However, if one asks what is the meaning of the word tazim, one gets many different answers. But if one asks what is tazim, they will say it is the standing and reciting of `ya nabi salaam aleika, ya rasul salaam aleika, ya habib salaam aleika...' However, tazim is much more than standing and reciting thanks and praises to the Prophet. It is about respect, honour and reverence. Supporters of tazim-o-tawqir say that it is essential for every believing Muslim, to practice tazim-o-tawqir but within a frame work that it does not become an evil bida'. Tazim has all along been observed in Guyana, but today there is much controversy over this practice. The educated person who is knowledgeable of Islam sees this practice as un-Islamic. Most others see no problem with it and continue with its practice. Still others see the practice as bida'-e-hasanah or a good innovation.

Three maulanas from the subcontinent who are highly regarded in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad have all endorsed this practice. Their support of tazim carries heavy weight because of their piety, education and unselfish dedication to the upliftment of Muslims. Maulana Noorani Siddique has called upon those who oppose tazim to provide the proof why it should not be practised. He has challenged the critics that tazim is in accordance with the Sunni Hanafi madhab and is not in conflict with the Qur'an and the Sunnah.


Supporters of milad-un-nabi say that the celebration is the commemoration and observance of the birth, life, achievements and favours for the Prophet. Many Sufi orders such as the Chishtiyah and Naqshbandiyah support this celebration. They say that expressions of love of the Prophet by the ummah in the form of milad-un-nabi is a humble effort by the ummah to show gratitude to Allah for His favour of blessing man with such a nabi (Prophet), and to the Nabi for bringing man out of the darkness of ignorance (jahiliyah). The essence of milad-un-nabi is to remember and observe, discuss and recite the event of the birth and the advent of the Prophet.(n14) Many argue that these practices are all in keeping with Qur'anic directives and assert that great ulema-e-haqq such as Ibn Hajar Haitami Hafiz, Ibn Hajar Asqalani, Ibn Jawzi, Imam Sakhaawi, and Imam Sayyuti have regarded milaad-un-nabi as mustahab (good deed).(n15)

Opponents of milad-un-nabi have called this practice a bida' or an innovation. Some argue that there are two types of bida': bida-e-hasanah and bida'-e-sayiah (good innovations and evil innovations). Proponents argue, `if the objection is to the current information [sic] that the observance of milad-un-nabi takes, and is thus regarded as an evil bida', then there are many other bida' which came about after the era of the tabii taabioon as well, which given the requirements of the era were necessary.(n16) They argue that following this logic the compilation and classification of Hadith is also a bida' which originated after the era of the sahaaba, taabioon and tabie taabioon (quroon-e-thalaatah). `The current form of Hadith is also an innovation. Books of Hadith, principles of Hadith, principles of jurisprudence, the schools of fiqh are all bida' and innovations which originated two centuries or more later'.(n17) However, they agreed that these are good bida' from which the ummah has benefited greatly. In discussing the survival of Islam in Guyana, Hamid says, `They were able to do this (maintain Islam) through Qur'anic and milaad functions, and other regular social interactions, in spite of distance and the demands of indentured ships'.(n18)

In arguing for the legitimacy of milad-un-nabi, M. W. Ismail refers to several Islamic scholars who have agreed that milad-un-nabi is a good bida' or bida' hassanah. He quotes the following from Imam Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani who in explaining Sahih Bukhari says: `Every action which was not in practice at the Prophet's time is called or known as innovation, however, there are those which are classified as good and there are those which are contrary to that'.(n19) Ismail then made reference to Fatmid Egypt (909-1171 AD) and quoted Imam Ibn Kathir from his book, Al-Bidaya (Vol. 13, p. 136): `Sultan Muzafar used to arrange the celebration of melaad sharief with honour, glory, dignity and grandeur. In this connection he used to arrange a magnificent festival'.(n20) Imam Kathir continued, `He was a pure hearted, grave and wise aalim and a just ruler, may Allah shower his mercy upon him and grant him an exalted status'.(n21) In trying to prove the validity of milad-un-nabi, the Sheikh quoted Al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar who when asked about the celebration said, `meelad shareef is, in fact, an innovation which was not transmitted from any pious predecessor in the first three centuries. Nevertheless, both acts of virtue as well as acts of abomination are found in it'.(n22) Opponents argue that the Prophet Muhammad (SWS) said, `Whoever brings forth an innovation into our religion which is not part of it, it is rejected'.(n23) They further quote the Prophet: `Beware of inventive matters for every invention is an innovation and every innovation is evil'.(n24) Supporters respond that those who quote these two Hadiths and claim that all innovation is bida' and reprehensible have in fact accused Muslim learned men, including the Caliph Umer, of committing `evil' innovations.(n25) This would include many other `innovations' which are widely accepted and practised by Muslims today such as the tarawih prayers, the introduction of the second adhan during Friday's congregational prayers, the introduction of reading `bismillah al-rahman al-rahim before commencing tashahud, and sending praise and salaams upon the Prophet.

The Qasida

The qasida (hymn of praise) has always been a part of the Arab tradition, and it spread from the heart of Arabia to the Islamic periphery. Arabic language impacted heavily on the vocabulary, the grammar and the literary prose of other languages such as Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Bosniak, Hausa and Swahili among others. Its contribution to the literature of these languages helped their revival. Today qasidas are written in Arabic but also in other languages spoken by Muslims and have become a part of the Islamic cultural expression.

There are four types of qasida, which are characterized according to their evolution. The pre-Islamic qasida, rooted in the ancient Arab tribal code; the panegyric qasida, expressing an ideal vision of a just Islamic government; the religious qasida, exhorting different types of commendable religious conduct; and the modern qasida, influenced by secular, nationalist, or humanist ideals. These many varieties of qasida greatly influenced the development of public discourse in many Muslim countries.

Guyanese Muslims have only been exposed to religious qasidas. However, in Guyana today there is no formal school of qasida teaching. What Guyanese Muslims know about qasida is what has been handed down from one generation to another. It is not a written tradition, but rather an oral one which inevitably has lost its scholarly character. No-one today learns the prose and the grammar of qasida and there is no-one to question nor to maintain the standard of good qasida. Madrasahs do not teach qasida, but a few Islamic organizations in Guyana do hold qasida competitions. The question remains, who sets the standards for winning and what are the criteria for winning? This aspect of cultural Islam no doubt has been influenced by the host environment. Today in Guyana there is a movement among a handful to resurrect this tradition. However, the lack of enthusiasm from the younger generation, many of whom have studied in the Arab world, compounded with its questionable Islamic legitimacy, will soon make these traditions extinct.

The visits of several Maulanas to the Caribbean, notably Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique and his son Maulana Ahmad Shah Noorani Siddique, provided opportunity to the Guyanese Muslims to seek clarification from these scholars of the Hanafi madhab regarding the practice of tazim, milad-un-nabi and qasida. These scholars endorsed these practices and refuted claims that these are evil innovations. They were able to convince the locals that based on the Qur'an, Hadith and the fiqh, tazim, milad-un-nabi and qasida were within the parameters of Islam, and if kept within the boundaries of Islam these practices are good bida'.

Arabization and the Sunnification Process

Before the 1960s, Muslim missionaries who visited Guyana came almost exclusively from the Indian subcontinent and visited frequently. This influx of missionaries and the Islamic literature they brought with them helped to promote and maintain the Sunni Hanafi madhab. It was not until the 1960s that Guyanese Muslims made contacts with the Arabic-speaking world. After Guyana's independence in 1966, the younger generation of Muslims were keen to make these contacts. Guyana established diplomatic relations with many Arab countries. Egypt, Iraq and Libya opened embassies in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Many Muslim youths went to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya to study Islamic theology and the Arabic language. Eventually Arabic-speaking Muslims began to take an interest in Guyana and many travelled there to render assistance to their Muslim brethren. In 1977 Libyan Charge d'Affaire Mr Ahmad Ibrahim Ehwass arrived in Guyana. He introduced many activities to benefit the Muslim community, especially the youth. Many scholarships were given to young Guyanese Muslims to study in Libya, and in 1978 he was responsible for the formation of the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT). In 1996 the late President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana toured several Middle Eastern countries and appointed a Middle Eastern envoy. His official visits took him to Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. It was also in 1996 that Guyana officially became a permanent observer in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). This further strengthened Guyana's ties with the Middle East, coupled with its traditional support for a Palestinian homeland. In 1997, during the 8th Summit of the OIC in Teheran, Iran, Dr Mohammed Ali Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's Ambassador to Washington, represented Guyana. Guyana's application for permanent membership in the OIC was accepted in 1998 and Guyana became the 56th member state of the OIC that year.

However, Guyanese Muslims returning from the Arab world to Guyana began introducing changes that irked the local Muslims. They advocated changes that they believed were more authentic to Islam as well as to the Arab world. Many who studied in Arabia were highly influenced by Wahabism, and thus a new interpretation of Islam was brought to Guyana which confused the locals. Wahabism's interpretation of Islam came in conflict with some aspects of the Muslim culture of the subcontinent.(n26) One scholar notes that the `Guyanese have not really benefited from the scholarships granted to students to study in Arabia, India or Pakistan because only a few have returned home, and even of the few who have returned home, an even lesser number have made positive contributions. Some have needlessly raised juristic issues which serve only to create division and confusion in the community'.(n27)

In the 1970s Guyanese Muslims began a movement toward greater homogenization and uniformity. Greater orthodoxy or sunnification accompanied this tendency toward uniformity. Sunnification means the abandonment of local and sectarian practices in favour of a uniform orthodox practice. The position of Muslims as a minority group in Guyana has assisted this process but the emergence of Muslim countries and the work of Muslim missionaries who have visited Guyana have also aided it. The establishment of Muslim colleges to train imams and the generosity of Muslim governments to provide scholarships for young Muslim Guyanese have been helping to produce a uniform orthodox practice. In essence, denying one's Indian-ness helps to bring one closer to the `Arab-ness' of Islam. Arabic and Arab-ness, it would seem today in Guyana, legitimizes Islam, and South Asian `cultural Islam' is now viewed as un-Islamic and polluted with innovations.

As in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the process of sunnification in Guyana took place under political competition between Hindus and Muslims. This process of Islamization or the revivalist movement, whose impact has been felt since the 1979 Iranian-Islamic revolution, is an expression of a need for a separate identity. In many of these countries Hindus and Muslims have had an antagonistic relationship. The revivalist movement is an expression of political dominance. Muslims refused to be dominated by Christians or Hindus in Guyana. Some Muslims in Guyana have entertained the idea of forming a Muslim political party for some time. This indeed happened in the 1970s with the formation of the Guyana United Muslim Party (GUMP) by Ghanie. The party founder was hoping to capture five seats in the Parliament. But he was unsuccessful in rallying the Muslim vote. Guyana's two main political parties have always courted the Muslims. Nevertheless, most Guyanese Muslims today believe that aligning themselves with political parties does them no good.

The tendency toward orthodoxy seems to have affected local religious practices, as seen in the gradual disappearance of the observance of Muharram, which is associated with the Shia Muslim tradition. The tazia or the tadjah (a procession of mourners marking the anniversary of the assassination of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet) was an annual event in which Muslims as well as non-Muslims participated.

However, orthodox Muslims in Guyana began to see the celebration of tazia as un-Islamic. Some agreed that it was just a time to congregate for the sake of socializing. Hindus, it seems, also participated in this festival which later came under heavy criticism from pious Muslims of the Hanafi madhab. According to Basdeo Mangru, there was hardly any evidence of conflict between the Hindus and Muslims to suggest a lack of social cohesion which had prevailed between the Africans and the Creoles under slavery.(n28) However, pressures increased from many sources to end this practice. Muslims wanted the state authorities to recognize the more orthodox holidays such as the two Eids and Youman-Nabi. By 1996, when Guyana achieved independence, the taziya was history. Today Muslim leaders are constantly stressing orthodoxy.

Religious personalities both in Guyana and those returning from overseas preach strongly against what are considered un-Islamic practices. There are many disputes between orthodox and traditionalists in which the former accuse the latter of pagan practices. This is in contrast to the earlier period when, as one scholar notes, `Guyana did not experience any major juristic problems within the period 1838-1920s. At no time were there more than 750 Shia and by 1950 they seemed to have been absorbed into the Sunni Muslim group'.(n29) However, after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and with the coming to power of Imam Khomeini in Iran, there was a sudden upsurge of Shiism across the world. Soon thereafter following the arrival of a Shia missionary in Guyana, two groups were established, one in Linden, Demerara and another in Canje, Berbice. However, the impact of Shiism in Guyana is yet to be determined.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Guyanese Muslims who returned from Arab educational institutions began a process of reconstructing the past. They tried to de-emphasize their Indian cultural heritage by reconstructing or redefining their history. Much of it was an effort to distinguish themselves from the Hindus in order to promote a separate Muslim identity. Although the majority are descendants of South Asian indentured labourers, they presented themselves as descendants of Arabs. While their mother tongue was Urdu, many claimed that it was Arabic.

During the mid-1970s a powerful Arabization movement had emerged, and it became more attractive for the orthodox Muslims in Guyana to be part of this movement than to trace one's roots in Pakistan or India. This movement to create a purer Islamic identity was contested by other traditionalists, especially the older generation. Today in Guyana many Muslims are concerned with the spread of other madhahib. The Director of Education and Dawah of the CIOG, Ahmad Hamid says, `As from 1977, Muslims in Guyana saw the introduction of the teaching of other madhahibs. These were new to the local Muslims and created some serious problems'.(n30) A trustee of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Ayube Khan, is also concerned about this division and regretted that too many dissentions have occurred `because of infiltration of disruptive elements'.(n31) This same concern was raised by the Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Haji Shaheed Mohammed, who says that `With petty misunderstandings, the exuberance of the youths and the need for general guidance to see that the Jamaat remains on the Hanafi madhab, being Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masjid can be a trying task'.(n32)

The shift from Urdu to Arabic and the emphasis to do away with traditional practices illustrates the attempts to emphasize cultural identity. They link these practices to Hinduism, hence, would like to purge Islam of these `innovations'. The association of Arabic with Muslims is new in Guyana and the demand for Arabic illustrates the emphasis to differentiate from the Hindus. Muslim children are taught Arabic and Urdu during the evening at Muslim schools (madrasah). These languages are restricted to religious contexts because all Guyanese Muslims speak English. There has been a movement recently in Guyana to introduce Hindi into the national curriculum. If this becomes a reality Muslims will demand Arabic or Urdu as well. A Hindu dominated government in Guyana will create tension with the Muslims.

Muslims in Guyana are concerned with safeguarding the interests of their own community. They are better organized than the Hindus. Muslim religious associations and mutual aid societies support those in the community who need help. The mosque constitutes the focal point of the local Muslim community and Islamic teachings at the mosque and the vernacular schools aid in the adherence to Islam and its precepts. Guyanese Muslims are an endogamous group; kinship and marriage bonds further support group solidarity. The few inter-religious marriages that do occur are due to the openness of Guyanese society, the lack of purdah, and Muslim women's participation in the labor market.

New elements derived from Middle Eastern culture, such as architecture of the mosque and its dome, have been introduced as part of the Islamization process. Nevertheless, `Indo-Iranian' architecture is still very pronounced in the style of mosques throughout Guyana. Another influence is the manner of greeting among Muslim men, particularly after prayers at the mosque, which involves embracing and shaking hands. The incorporation of Arabic words and terms instead of Urdu words and terms is very evident today. For example, instead of using the Urdu word bhai (brother) many use the Arabic term akhee. Guyanese Muslim who can afford it do make the pilgrimage to Makkah. Some men have started wearing the long shirts (jilbab) which they acquired after the pilgrimage and sport long beards. Some women have started wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

There is a move toward a more literary tradition in conformity with Islam at the expense of local traditions. In this religious discourse, the interpretation provided by orthodox Muslims relying on the scriptural tradition seems to become more hegemonic, creating religious authority itself. There is stronger emphasis on the need to learn Arabic for the namaz (daily worship) and on correct pronunciation, as well as the ability to recite, and understand the Qur'an. In Guyana today the emphasis is on practicing orthodox and Sunni Islam. This is voiced by many imams who advocate strict adherence to the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

However, while the newly returned men tend to convey that they have a monopoly on religious affairs, they have so far failed to institutionalize positive changes. Even their Bedouin garb intimidated the local Muslim population, and drew more fear rather than respect for them. These `learned' men were soon forced to abandon one mosque for another and an entire realignment took place in Guyana. New organizations were formed which sought to make changes that they perceived were in line with the authentic Islam of Arabia. The cleansing of the `Indo-Iranian' traditions was high on their agenda, and continues to be so. In 1994 at the 78 Corentyne Mosque, during one Eid, two separate Eid Namaz were held. The CIOG's official publication Al-Bayan writes, `For Eid-ul-Azha 1994, the Muslims witnessed a very sad incident that clearly indicated that the #78 Jamaat is definitely divided into two factions'.(n33) A younger imam who returned from Arabia was expelled from that mosque. This division led to the resignation of Al-Haj Mohamed Ballie as imam. Today one faction is building a new mosque nearby. Al-Bayan cited a similar incident at the Shieldstown Jamat in 1992: `One brother was physically removed from the masjid because he refused to comply with the ruling of the Jamaat'.(n34)

Most Guyanese Muslims agree that it would be wise if the opponents and proponents of the Indo-Iranian tradition seek their answers from the Qur'an, the Sunnah and ijma' (consensus), instead of seeking drastic changes. `Despite their shortcomings and lack of formal education, the early Muslims played a dynamic role in maintaining the Islamic society and paved the way for us to enjoy the benefits'.(n35)

For the younger generation everything that is different from the Arab world is wrong. They fail to contemplate that from Albania to Zanzibar the Muslim world speaks many languages and hails from many different traditions. Here in Guyana, they tried to replace Urdu with Arabic. Instead it would have been easier to build upon what the Guyanese Muslims had knowledge of and that is Urdu. When the Muslims arrived in Guyana their medium of communication was Urdu, and only a handful could read and write Arabic. In fact for the early Muslims Urdu provided the basis for their understanding of Islam and the Qur'an. Urdu today is a dying language in Guyana, while in India it is being held hostage by Hindu zealots. On the other hand, Arabic has not made any significant impact among the Muslims in Guyana.

Thus, it would seem unrealistic of the younger generations of Guyanese Muslims who have returned to Guyana from the Arab world to demand the cleansing of established traditions, which has caused great tension in the community. Guyanese Muslims themselves have come to Guyana from a region with a rich history in art, architecture, literature, math, music, science, philosophy and theology, and so, they have a rich heritage of their own. This should be recognized by the `learned men'. They should strive for unity in preserving the uniqueness of Guyanese Muslim culture. Speaking Arabic or dressing like an Arab won't make one an Arab or a Muslim. It only reinforces low self-esteem and erects a barrier between them and other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

Muslim Political Participation and the Subcontinent Connection

Muslim missionaries from Pakistan and India have regularly visited the Islamic communities in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad, where they were often received with euphoria. Consistently they have tried to unite the different Islamic organizations, and have tried to mediate in order to bridge differences among the Muslims in these countries. They have also helped in providing Islamic literature, teachers and scholarships to the Caribbean Muslims. In 1937 Maulana Shamsuddeen visited Guyana. This was followed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari, Maulana M. Aleem Siddique in 1959 and Maulana Ahmad Shah Noorani Siddique in 1968.

Pakistani missionaries helped to revive Islamic communities in the Caribbean and were particularly successful in Suriname and Trinidad. Trinidad's most popular mosque, the Jinnah Memorial, is testimony of this strong relationship between the Muslims of Trinidad and Pakistan's Islamic community. When Maulana Noorani visited Suriname he was successful in bringing the Surinamese Muslims together. He was there when the foundations were laid to build the Caribbean's largest mosque, the Djama Masjid, a grand piece of Islamic architecture with four towering minarets. The Djama Masjid school is named after Maulana Noorani. The Trinidad Muslim League was founded on Pakistan Day and when Pakistan's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Isfahani, visited Trinidad he received a warm welcome.

However, the tensions and rivalries between the various Guyanese Islamic organizations greatly damaged the general welfare of the Muslims and affected their relationship with the Muslim communities in the subcontinent. In 1934, the Jamiati Ulama was formed as an independent organization but this lasted only briefly. The name was changed in 1941 to Khadaam-ud-din. However, after reaching a consensus among the Imams, the name was changed to Jamiatul Ulama-E-Deen of Guyana. By the 1950s the Jamiat along with the British Guyana Muslim Youth Organization and the Anjuman Hifazatul Islam became aligned with the United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman. Another Islamic organization, the Islamic Association of British Guyana (IABG), was established in 1936 in order to serve the needs of the Guyanese Muslims. In the same year, the IABG published the first Islamic journal, Nur-E-Islam.

At Queenstown Masjid on 20 June 1937 during the visit of Maulana Shamsuddeen to Guyana, the Sad'r-E-Anjuman was formed. The Maulana tried to unite the IABG and the Sad'r-E-Anjuman. These two organizations were rivals. They both claimed to represent the Muslims. This antagonistic relationship culminated in the Sad'r-E-Anjuman's withdrawal of its members from the Queenstown Masjid in 1941. Sad'r-E-Anjuman moved to Kitty where it built its own mosque, the Sad'r Masjid, on Sandy Babb Street.

The United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman was established in 1949 after four years of discussions. The IABG and the Sad'r merged to form the United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman (USIA). Their two journals, Nur-E-Islam and Islam, were combined. The USIA was the representative of Muslims from 1950 to 1960. Its strong leadership greatly influenced society at all levels--governmental and non-governmental. Sadly, soon after independence the Anjuman succumbed to political intrigues and rivalries.

As Guyana was approaching independence, Muslims were taking positions based on ideologies and aligning themselves with political parties. Muslims were found in both the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the People's National Congress (PNC), which were Guyana's two main political parties. In 1964, Abdool Majeed, President of the Sad'r, accepted the chairmanship of the United Forces Party. His vacancy was filled by Yacoob Ally who was a PPP Parliamentarian. Naturally this led to division among the Muslim community. This division was obvious on several occasions. On one such occasion in 1967, when Maulana Noorani was coming to Guyana from Suriname the USIA, Hifaz and Ulama-E-Deen sent him a joint cable which read: `Your visit is most unwelcome. Should you come to Guyana there would be violent eruption'. The Sad'r later aligned itself closely with the ruling PNC government.

The next year when Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari from Pakistan visited Guyana, he failed to get any support from the USIA, Hifaz and Ulama-E-Deen when he stated publicly at the Town Hall the Islamic position with regard to socialism and communism. The division of the Muslim organizations along political lines eroded the strong relationship that Pakistan had always enjoyed with the Guyanese Muslims. On the other hand, Suriname and Trinidad were able to unite and take advantage of the generosity from Pakistani and Indian Muslims. After 1969 there has been no other high level Muslim visits from either Pakistan or India to Guyana.

Nevertheless, the Carribean East Indian connection to the subcontinent is deep-rooted. Brinsley Samaroo observes: `There has been a marked closeness between the Muslims in this part of the world and India up to 1947, and with Pakistan since that time'.(n36) In Guyana up to the 1960s, the Muslim leadership came exclusively from Muslims of South Asian descent who had studied in either Pakistan or India. In Suriname the South Asian Muslims referred to themselves as Pakistanis. While referring to Trinidad, Samaroo writes that `indeed the Trinidad Muslim League (TML) was found precisely on Pakistan Day, that is 15th of August 1947, to underline this connection with the Subcontinent'.(n37) According to Samaroo, `From this time not only religious visits continue, but there was great rejoicing when civil or political personalities form Pakistan visited the Caribbean'.

Pakistan attended Guyana's independence celebration in 1966 and presented an oriental rug to the new nation. A few years later the two countries established diplomatic ties and in the 1980s they exchanged honorary consuls in Georgetown and in Karachi. The Pakistani High Commissioner to Canada, who is accredited to Guyana, frequently visits the Muslim Communities in Guyana. In January of 1994, Pakistan's Deputy High Commissioner to Guyana, Mr Arif Kamal, visited the Secretariat of the CIOG. `Special attention was paid to the areas in which Muslims in Guyana can benefit from social, cultural and educational programmes of Pakistan'.(n39)

During his visit CIOG sent a letter to former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, requesting places at Pakistani universities for Guyanese Muslims to pursue higher education. In February of 1997 Pakistan's High Commissioner to Guyana, Dr Farook Rana, met with the CIOG. According to CIOG's official newsletter, Al-Bayan, Dr Rana promised to provide scholarships for secular studies, Pakistani teachers to work in Guyana, Islamic books, newspapers, etc. The Dawah Academy International in Islamabad, Pakistan, now offers scholarships to Muslim Guyanese. The Director of the Dawah Academy in Islamabad, Dr Anis Ahmad, visited Guyana in 1995 and promised scholarships to the CIOG and the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT).

He indicated specifically the areas in which the Academy could be of assistance which included imams courses, seminars, teachers, training in Pakistan and the affiliation of the proposed Islamic Academy of CIOG with the Da'wah Academy of Pakistan.(n40) To this day Pakistan offers secular and religious scholarships to Guyana in numerous fields of study. However, today among the young people there is greater interest in studying in the Arabic-speaking world.


The movement to purge Islam of Indo-Iranian traditions continues unabated in Guyana today. Friction between the younger and the older generations, or the Arab camp and the Indo-Iranian camp, continue to stifle the full potential of this minority community that has done well for itself in Guyana in the past. Yet another challenge that Guyanese Muslims face in this diverse land is to provide the bridge and reduce polarization of Indians and Blacks. At the same time a rational understanding and appreciation of Indo-Iranian traditions and reconciliation with that of the Arabic-speaking world needs to be reached. The situation is complicated by the fact that a majority of Guyanese Muslims today cannot speak or write either Arabic or Urdu.

Thus, the push to make radical changes stems from the lack of balanced education and informed opinion. If Arab-ness legitimizes everything, as the orthodox movement in Guyana claims, then without knowing, they subscribe to the superiority of the Arab world. Hence, the movement to eradicate reminiscences of the Indo-Iranian traditions is rooted more in the intelligentsia's sense of inferiority rather than their appreciation of orthodoxy. It is ironic that the intelligentsia who went to Arabia after the 1960s and returned to Guyana created more friction and disharmony in the community. It turned into a competition of the hegemonic ambitions of a handful of religious zealots. The opponents of the Indo-Iranian heritage would do well to assert Islamic spirituality and put aside hegemonic ambitions.

Guyanese Muslims who are returning from educational institutions in the Arab world are also encouraging the younger generation to study in the Arabic-speaking countries instead of in Pakistan, India or Malaysia. Many Islamic organizations in Guyana today have their preferences of where they wish to send young people to study. Some of these organizations have forged strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt. However, Muslims still have the opportunities to study in Malaysia, Pakistan or India. But the latter countries are not the top choices of the newer generation of Muslims. The once vibrant relationship with Pakistan and India has now withered. The intelligentsia now looks to the Arabic-speaking world for leadership and religious guidance. However, it is Ironic that to this day Saudi Arabia and Guyana have not established diplomatic relations. This has to happen before the two countries exchange ambassadors and forge diplomatic and cultural ties. This is despite the fact that Guyana and Suriname are today members of the OIC, whose headquarters are based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Raymond Chickrie


The Revival of Hinduism in the West

The inspiring story of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Trinidad, Guyana, England and Canada

By Swami Dibyananda

Swami Purnanadajee (left), Governor Mr.Patrick Renison (seated) and party cross the river to lay the corner stone at the Guyana Ashram at Cove and John

Acharya Swami Pranavanandajee Maharaj founder of Bharat Sevashram Sangha said, “I am He. The Almighty reveals Himself through me. I am the destined Saviour (Sad Guru), the personification of God Himself for this age. I am the common reservoir, the power house of Divine Energies and Benedictions. Come to me, connect yourself with me, resign yourself in me; take refuge in me, worship me, pray to me , meditate upon me, follow me, realize my ideals in your life and work for my mission. In this way you will progress spiritually towards the path of God realization, through my grace. This is the earliest course of spiritual progress in the present age”.

My Sangha is but the second and more perfected edition of the Great Buddha’s Sangha founded in order to fulfill the demands of the age. The Sangha sets forth a synthesis of the ideals of the Vedic Age and the spirit of national re-organization of the Buddha’s period. As long as the preaching and propagation of -The Message of the Sangha would be continuing, the Sangha will be alive.”

Indian Cultural Mission

In order to carry out His order, the monks of the Sangha were engaged in preaching His message, the gospel of Hinduism all over the globe. On June 4th, 1948, a cultural mission under the leadership of Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj, the great orator, left for (Darussalam) Tanzania, (East Africa) from Bombay. They travellled by the ship named Kandala. Swami Akshayanandajee Maharaj was the Deputy leader of the Mission, he organized the tour. He was a dynamic monk in the history of the Sangha. The other members of the Cultural Mission were: Swami Tryambakanandajee Maharaj, Brahamachari Chandi (Swami Ashokanandajee), Brahmachari Paresh (Swami Buddhanandajee), Brahmachari Ramdas (Swami Vedeshanadajee) and Brahamachari Mritunjoy. After preaching and providing the people of East Africa with the wealth of Hinduism, the cultural mission returned to India.

In order to welcome the cultural mission, reception programs were organized in different states of India. For example: one reception program was held at the Association Hall in Calcutta, spearheaded by Dr Ramesh Chandra Mazumder, a great historian. Other receptions were chaired in Delhi and Surat to welcome these fearless monks.

With such vast response from East Africa, the Sangha felt a sense of comfort to send their missionaries to other countries to disperse the verbiage of Hinduism. Then the Cultural Missions continue to send monks to Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong, Philippines and different countries of South Asia.

Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Trinidad

India is at last politically free and her people have become independent after thousands of years of subjugation by Muslims and British. There is a proverb, “The Sun never sets in the British Empire.” The British Government in India sent farmers from remote villages especially from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as indenture labourers to the West Indies. It is assumed that the Indians who were transported to the West Indies were from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This theory is still an unknown to people of the West Indies as to which state their ancestors came from. Most of the East Indians landed in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Barbados and other Caribbean Islands. These people worked on the sugar plantation as indentured labourers (1838 to 1845). They were paid farmers. Today, the off-springs of the indentured labourers are now lawyers, doctors, politicians and are well- educated men and women in the Society. It is an established fact although people migrated from India so many years, to date they have managed to keep their culture, thus maintaining Hinduism.

The First Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru requested the President of Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Shreemat Swami Satchidanandajee Maharaj to send a Cultural Mission to the West Indies (Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname) to preach and propagate Hinduism (which teaches live and let live). During the period 1835 to 1845 the Indians were sent by the British to their colonial territories. The Christian Missionaries converted a number of Indians but Hinduism stayed alive after 112 years. Pundits and the older generation fought and struggled to sustain our Hindu culture.

In the year 1950, 11th September, a Cultural Mission again sailed from Khidirpur (Calcutta) traveled via ship (Betya) to the West Indies, under the leadership of Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj. Other members were Swami Purnanandajee Maharaj (Deputy Leader of the mission) Brahmachari Rajkrishna (Swami Vijayanandajee) and Brahmachari Mritunjoy. The ship reached Mauritius Port and anchored for two days. The Indians welcomed the Indian Cultural Mission and arranged lecture programs. The Indian High Commissioner welcomed Swami Advaitanandajee. Their visit and lectures were publicized in the Advance Newspaper. In Mauritius 70% of the population were Hindus. Then they traveled to Cape Town in Africa, the Gujrati business community organized lectures in Cape Town. Then to Barbados, the Indians organized lectures in Barbados.

Visit to trinidad

Finally the ship reached its destination, Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago at 9.00 a.m., on the 28th of December 1950.

A Reception Committee headed by Mr. C. V. Mathur was formed in Trinidad to welcome the Cultural Mission. Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj the leader of Cultural Mission and other members of the group were garlanded by the welcoming committee. First, Mr. C.V. Mathur (President of the cultural committee) welcomed the Indian Cultural Mission with a short speech. Then, Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj leader of the Cultural Mission replied with a short lecture thanking the people of Trinidad for this warm welcome. The High Commissioner of India, Mr. Anand Mohan Sahay, Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, Bishram Gopi, R.R. Ojha, Pandit Seunarine ,E. J.Pelse and many other Hindu leaders welcome Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj and the other members of the Indian Cultural mission . They took them to Champs Fleurs in the house of Mr. Bhadase Sagan Maharaj where they were accommodated. He was the richest person as well as a dynamic Hindu leader in Trinidad. The next day, the Welcome Committee arranged a great reception program for the Indian Cultural Mission in Queen’s Park, Port of Spain (the capital city). Thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Christians from all over Trinidad and different islands of the West Indies came to the reception program. They were overwhelmed by the lecture of Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj, the great orator.

After hearing the dynamic lecture, the Hindus were thinking God has sent these divine saints to our blessed country to save our religion. Since their forefathers came to Trinidad from India about 112 years ago, no preacher came from India and for the first time in their lives they saw Indian monks. Yet, it is amazing how these people from Trinidad managed to maintain their religion without any support from any cultural or ascetic background to keep their faith and religion alive.

The Cultural Mission started preaching from Champs Fleurs. Mr. Bhadase Sagan Maharaj from a Hindu background always supported the missionary group and provided them with a pleasant stay. Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj lectured in different cities and villages of Trinidad at the request of the Hindu leaders of Trinidad. The Cultural Mission was preaching the cultural heritage of India with Vedic Sandhya and Havan. The charming and melodious songs of Brahmachari Mritunjoy kept everyone spell-bounded. Brahmachari Rajkrishna, the young fair-complexioned and handsome looking was with long curly black flowing hair, provided the backdrop when he used to perform the Heroic Guru Arati, in the dancing mood, people were captivated. The rebirth of the wonderful Vedic age came alive once more. 112 years from one’s motherland, change is expected; therefore large numbers of Hindus were converted to Christianity as the Christian Missionaires were in Trinidad. However, after hearing the dynamic lectures of Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj, a large number of them were returned to Hinduism. The Christian Missionaries were not able to convert the Hindus in Trinidad very easily any more. Due to the preaching and propagation of Hinduism by the Indian cultural mission in Trinidad and due to inundating the Hindus with Hinduism, they were unable to convert Hindus into Christianity.

The Hindu leaders of Trinidad arranged a few farewell programs in different cities. After adding to the wealth of Hinduism to the people in Trinidad, the Indian Cultural Mission flew for British Guyana on September 14th, 1951.

Swami Purnanandajee, the deputy leader of the Cultural Mission remained in Trinidad to carry out the stream of Hinduism in Trinidad.

Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Guyana

Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, Pandit S.P. Sharma, Barrister Sugrim Singh, Ramjas Tewari and many other Hindu leaders were present to welcome the Indian Cultural Mission at the Atkinson (Cheddi Jagan) Airport (Guyana). Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh welcomed the Mission by giving a short speech; people garlanded every one of the monks. Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj replied with a short lecture to thank and welcome the people of Guyana. Lots of people were waiting on both sides of the road to greet them. They brought them to the Kitty Mandir and arranged their accommodation in the house of Mr. Balkaran in Lamaha Street, Kitty.

Next day, the Welcome Committee arranged a great reception program in the Town Hall of Georgetown. Mr. Charles Willy, Governor of British Guyana welcomed the Cultural Mission. On behalf of the city, Mr. H. B. Gajraj, Mayor, welcomed all with an accepting speech. The audience was overwhelmed by the dynamic lecture of the great orator, Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj. The Hindu leaders from different parts of Guyana invited the Mission and organized lectures.

The Cultural Mission preached the cultural heritage of India with Vedic Sandhya and Havan all over Guyana. They received lot of co-operation from every one. The people of Guyana were captivated by the heroic Arati performed by Brahmachari Rajkrishna. The Cultural Mission spread the words of Hinduism all over Guyana as they did in Trinidad. The Hindu leaders of Guyana requested Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj to recruit one monk in Guyana to carry out the stream of Hinduism. Swami Advaitanandajee Maharaj said, Swami Purnanandajee is in Trinidad right now and he will work with the Hindus in both Trinidad and Guyana and will carry out the activities of the Sangha. After preaching and added to the Hindus on Hinduism in Guyana, the Cultural Mission departed. Farewell programs were organized in the Town Hall, Kitty Mandir and Arya Samaj Mandir.

Enroute to India, the Cultural Mission reached London. Dr. Kumaria and other devotees welcomed them at the Airport. Dr. Kumaria is the founder of the Hindu Association in London. Swamjee lectured at the Hindu Association for two days at the Student Burrow and other places. After preaching and increasing to the growth of Hindus in respect to Hinduism in London for three weeks, the Cultural Mission left from London via Paris and Rome and reached Bombay Airport.

As mentioned earlier, Swami Purnanandajee Maharaj the deputy leader of the Indian Cultural Mission remained in Trinidad to carry out the stream of Hinduism at the request of the Hindus of Trinidad permission granted by Governing body of Bharat Sevashram Sangha (Calcutta, Head quarters).

In Trinidad, Swami Purnanadajee Maharaj had no particular place to stay. Usually he stayed in different Temples, in this way he was engaged in preaching all day. He used to teach Sandhya and Havan to the devotees and lectured on Hinduism. Mr. Sooknanan Maharaj, from Princess Town, donated him a car and he also gave him a newly built house to reside. Swamijee felt it was his obligation to clarify the depth of Hinduism. He did not sleep in the house provided but slept in the car so moving from one area to another can be easily accessible to educate and add to the value of Hinduism to the people of Trinidad. He hardly slept in the house; he returned to his home every 10-15days. His goal was to spread the teachings of Hinduisim (teachings of his Guru, Acharya Swami Pranavanandjee Maharaj).

In Trinidad the Maha Sabha was formed through the guidance of Swami Purnanandaje Maharaj. Bhadase Sagan Maharaj was the President of Maha Sahba. Swamijee encouraged Mr. Bhadase Sagan Maharaj to open Hindu Schools to protect the Hindus from converting to Christian missionaries. Today, the Maha Sabha has 52 Hindu Schools. After the expiry of Mr. Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, his son in law, Satyanarayan Maharaj became the Secretary of Maha Sabha.

In 1953 a devotee from Felicity, Brijlal Bansraj donated one plot of land to build an ashram. When Swamijee got the land, he used to sleep on the ground on a mattress in an open space with a mosquito net. Devotees used to beg him, Gurujee! We are providing you a room, please come, but Swamijee would not listen to them. When rain fell, he used to sit with an umbrella.

Devotees used to ask him again, Gurujee! Come to our house; he used to tell them, The sky is my roof. Within a few months he built a Temple in Felicity on that land. Swamijee formed an organization named Trinidad Sevashram Sangha. By his encouragement and support, another three Temples were built; Caparo, Bejucal and Freeport. These Temples are the branches of Trinidad Sevashram Sangha.

Swamijee organized hundreds of groups. Swamijee wrote HINDUTVAM, it is called the BIBLE for the Hindus in Trinidad, Guyana and other parts of the world. In Trinidad (Felicity Ashram), his determination was so strong that he would use only one match stick to light the firewood to cook. If it did not light, he would not cook. Some times he used to boil papaya leaves and used to drink it as food.

Gayadutt Singh (Sunder), used to visit him every day and Swamijee used to feed him. If there was no food, Swamijee used to give him the boiled liquid papaya leaves to drink. Sunder asked, “Gurujee! What is this?” Swamijee used to say, Sundar, “This is very good for one’s health.” Sunder entered the kitchen and found out; there was no rice and vegetables to cook. That’s why Gurujee boiled papaya leaves to survive.

He never asked any one nor would he spend money to buy any thing for him. Swami Purnanadajee Maharaj, dynamic monk, spent five valuable years in Trinidad. He established Trinidad Sevashram Sangha with four branches. Felicity Ashram is the Headquarters.

One African gentleman, Mr. Ephram Charles took initiation from Swamijee. He was a politician and Swamijee selected him as the President of Trinidad Sevashram Sangha. He went everywhere with Swamijee to preach. Another African gentleman Mr.Huangriggs donated all the money to print the Bhagawad Geeta, which was written by Swami Purnanadajee Maharaj.

The echo of Trinidad reached to Guyana long before. The Hindus of Guyana were waiting anxiously for Swami Purnanandajee Maharaj. Swamijee appointed the executive committee members of Trinidad Sevashram Sangha and Felicity as the Headquarters of all the branches. He gave responsibility to Brijlal Bansraj to run the service of Felicity Ashram. He purchased a mini bus and he used to travel with the devotees all over Trinidad to perform Sandhya, Havan as well as to preach and propagate the message of Guru Maharaj. Mr. Brijlal Bansraj along with Mr. Shyamlal Jadunandan was very dedicated to Guru Maharaj.

Swami Purnanadajee in Guyana

Hindu leaders of Guyana, Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, Pandit S.P. Sharma, Mr. R.K. Singh, Mr. Budhu and Mr. Kedar sponsored Swami Purnanadajee Maharaj.

On Octobor 28Th, 1955, Swamijee arrived in Guyana. All the Hindu leaders of Guyana went to the airport to welcome him. His accommodation was arranged in the house of Pandit S. P Sharma in Kitty, 29, Sandybabb Street. Swamijee did yojna (Prabachan) for fourteen days in Campbellville Temple (greater Gorgetown). He commenced preaching and propagating Hinduism all over Guyana and added to the revolution of Hinduism in Guyana.

Mr. & Mrs. Resaul Maharaj met Swamijee in Kitty and offered Swamijee 20 acres of swampy land in Cove and John, East Coast Demarara to build an ashram. He accepted the generous donation and started to build an Ashram. Bhaijee Dudhnath, a very dedicated disciple of Swamije, worked with Swamijee all the time in the ashram. He never saw Gurujee neither cooked nor eat. One day he asked for permission from Gurujee to enter in the kitchen and was astonished to see heaps of coconut shells. He asked Gurujee! What do you eat? Swamijee replied, “Coconuts.” In this way, he used to survive but he never asked the devotees for anything.

In Guyana, Hindus used to bury the dead bodies like the Christians. Swami Purnanadajee Maharaj defended the cause for the Hindus whereby the Government of British Guyana had to change the law to allow the Hindus to cremate their dead. Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh was the first man to be cremated in Guyana and Swami Purnanandajee Maharaj was present at his cremation ceremony. He showed the devotees how to cremate. Swamijee used to say, “Hindus have the sacred privilege and birth right to cremate their dead bodies.”

Swamijee had a dream to live for. He said, “Until and unless I can build a Hindu College and dormitory my dream will not be fulfilled and the Indians will be able to stand on their own feet.” Swamijee encouraged Indians, by saying, you the Indians and you are the majority yet you Indians are treated like Coolies. How long you will all be dominated? Arise, wake and be a vibrant Hindu. One day you will have to rule this country. When he used to say these inspiring words, his voice rose and roared like a lion.

In 1956 the prominent lawyer Mr. Sugrim Prasad (son in law of Mr. & Mrs. Resaul Maharaj) supplied materials to build the Hindu College (Secondary School) and Dormitory. Devotees from all over Guyana helped manually and financially and few devotees from Trinidad came and helped for construction also. Brahmacharies and students (boys) used to stay in the dormitory. Hindu Primary School was built by donations. In due course more buildings were constructed in the complex is known as Guyana Sevashram Sangha (Cove & John Ashram). The Governor of British Guyana Mr. Patrick Renison laid the foundation for the science lab, 26 February, 1956. The Hindu Primary School and the Hindu College was the top educational institution in British Guyana. All races of students attending in the Hindu college and that was the only school in the west whereby students were allowed to say their own prayers before attending class. Swamijee allowed the poor students; free education and allow them to stay in the dormitory free, thus the reason for Swamjee to build a College for the people of Guyana. This is the work of this great organization (Bharat Sevashram Sangha).

Swamijee traveled all over Guyana to preach and propagate the ideals of Hinduism. Sometimes the Pandits created lots of problems, but due to his heroic and dynamic personality and the blessings of his Guru Acharya Swami Pranavandajee Maharaj, on one could touch him. As the Ashram was growing with lots of activities, Calcutta Head quarters sent another monk to assist Swamijee, who unfortunately passed away in Guyana after a few years. Swami Purnanandajee trained five Brahmacharies in the first group. Swami Vidyanadajee is the first Sannyasian from the first group in Guyana (South America). He is presently in charge of America Sevashram Sangha and Guyana Sevashram Sangha.

From time to time, Swami Purnanandajee took short trips to India. During those trips, in 1960, he decided to make a short stop in London (UK). He saw the need for the revival of Hinduism and in 1961 he established the London Sevashram Sangha, in Shepherd Bush, London (UK). Later, he brought two Brahmacharies to London from Guyana. Swami Nirliptanandajee who is presently in charge of the London branch, was one of the Brahmachari he brought from Guyana.

In 1967, Calcutta Headquarters assigned Swami Brahamanandajee Maharaj (B,S.c) to Guyana as the principal of Hindu College. Swami Brahmanandajee served the Hindu College as the Principal and also in charge of Guyana Sevashram Sangha for ten years. In 1973, he rebuilt the new Temple of Guyana Ashram. By the request of Guyanese and Trinidadian devotees in Canada, Swami Brahmanandajee visited Canada in 1975. With the consent of the Governing body of Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Calcutta Head quarters, Swami Purnanandajee sent Swami Brahmanandajee in 1977 to establish a branch of Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Canada. He stayed in devotees’ homes and conducted service every other Sunday at the University of Toronto and devotees’ homes. Swamijee worked hard and with the help of the devotees, a property was bought with a house in 1981 and establish an ashram at 196, Royal York Road, Toronto, Ontario (Canada). In 1989 the Ashram was moved to 2107, Codlin Crescent, Toronto, Ontario. (Phone 416-679-0967, E mail - This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ). Swami Purnanandajee trained Brahmachari Shivshankar (Swami Bhajanananda) He served Hindu college as an English literature teacher. Swami Purnanandajee sent him to Trinidad in 1981, as In-charge of Trinidad Sevashram Sangha and he served there for five years. In 1986, Swami Bhajanandajee was sent to Canada to assist Swami Brahmanandajee.

In the absence of Swami Brahmanandajee in Guyana, Swami Vidyanandajee became the principal of Hindu College and In-charge of Guyana Sevashram Sangha. He is a vibrant monk and he has lot of command on the Hindus of Guyana. Swami Purnanandajee sent Swami Vidyanandajee to New York (USA) in 1987 to establish a branch. He established America Sevashram Sangha (in Jamaica Avenue, N.Y, USA), a branch of Bharat Sevashram Sangha.

In the absence of Swami Vidyanandajee, in Guyana, Brahmachari Bhaskar (Swami Shiveshwaranandajee) took charge of Guyana Sevashram Sangha, also the Asst. Principal of Hindu College. Guyana Sevashram Sangha is the first monastery and first Hindu college and Dormitory in South America.

Swami Purnanandajee’s strong discipline, great sacrifice, guidance and contributions for the education insistences on moral discipline produced people in every profession and field of activities in Trinidad and Guyana. By his grace, inspiration and blessings, America Sevashram Sangha, Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Canada, London Sevashram Sangha,Trinidad Sevashram Sangha and Guyana Sevashram Sangha were founded.

Swami Purnanandajee worked very hard. He was very sick at the end of 1985. And he was admitted to Hospital in London. One night, Guru Maharaj (Acharya Swami Pranavnandajee Maharaj) appeared before him and told him, “Purnananda! You have done a lot in the West. Your lifespan is at an end. I am granting you few more months lifespan. You go and visit Guyana, Trinidad, Canada and America to meet all the devotees and encourage them to continue the activities. Then come back to London and finally come to Mother India, then I will take you.”

Swami Purnanadajee rapidly recovered by the blessings of Guru Maharaj. At first he came to Guyana. All the Brahmacharis were extremely happy as Gurujee is with them. They were nagging, Gurujee! You will have to stay in Guyana Ashram with us for the rest of your life. Swamijee Said, My Children! Listen, my lifespan is at an end, Guru Maharaj granted me a few months lifespan to visit Guyana, Trinidad, Canada, America and London. Then I will go back to Mother India to quit my mortal body.

Swami Purnanandajee stayed a few days in Guyana. On day he proclaimed amongst the Brahmacharies and devotees, Tomorrow morning I will fly to Trinidad. Next day early in the morning Swamijee did Guru Arati. Swami Purnanandajee blessed all the Brahmacharies and devotees and encouraged them to carry out the activities of Guru Maharaj perfectly. Swamijee sat on the car and they all started to cry. The Brahmacharies and devotees told, Gurujee! Please look back and see what you have done in the swampy land on the bank of Atlantic Ocean. Swami Purnanandajee replied, “I am the instrument of Guru Maharaj. Guru Maharaj did his work through this instrument.”

Swami Purnanandajee left Guyana on Monday morning, December 9th, 1985 and reached Trinidad. All the devotees of Trinidad gladly came to meet him. He encouraged them to carry out the activities of Guru Maharaj. This time he was different. He gave Prasad to every one and spoke very softly. The devotees said to him, Gurujee! You are so kind to us. Swami Purnanandajee said I am going back to Mother India to quit my mortal body; I will not come back physically to you.

He visited Canada, America and London and encouraged all the devotees to continue the activities of Guru Maharaj properly and told them in the same way, that he is going back to Mother India forever to quit his physical body.

Swami Purnanandajee reached Calcutta Headquarters before Maghi Purnima, he was in good health. Maghi Purnima and Shivaratri festivals were passed. There was Purna Kumbela in March in Hardwar. All the monks requested Swamijee to go to Kumbhmela with them. Swamijee told I will not go; I am in Guru Maharaj’s Siddhapith, ‘this is my Hardwar, this is my kumbhamela’. Most of the monks went to kumbhmela in Hardwar. On April 11th, 1986, His Holiness Swami Purnanandajee Maharaj gave up his mortal coil in Calcutta Head quarters at the Holy feet of Guru Maharaj and took rest for ever in the sacred soil of Mother India.

Swami Purnanandajee, dynamic monk, shed His blood and energy in the west for the love of His master.

The people of the West are eternally grateful to Acharya Shreemat Swami Pranavanandjee Maharaj, founder of Bharat Sevashram Sangha, who continues to inspire and unite the devotees to the spiritual path thereby saving Hinduism which teaches live and let live.

At present there are lots of monks of Bharat Sevashram Sangha from India who are recruited to the West by the Sangha to propagate the gospel of Hinduism and from time to time monks of the Sangha from India are also visiting and propagating Hinduism in the West.

Om Shanti! Om Shanti!



B. H. Khanam and R. S. Chickrie

The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834,
followed by a period of Apprenticeship to 1838, placed the
plantocracy in the unenviable position of having to bargain with
free labour. This sent them in search of alternative sources of
cheap labour that they could control. Contract workers were sourced
from China, Madeira, West Africa and the West Indies but when these
proved inadequate, upon an initiative that is now famously known as
the "Gladstone experiment", the first batch of Indian workers
arrived on the shores of then British Guiana (Guyana) on two ships,
the Whitby and the Hesperus, both docking in the colony on 5th May
1838. A total of 424 Indians landed from both ships, 14 having died
during the voyage. Initially, Indian workers were recruited from the
hill tribes (Dhangars, Mundas, Kols, Oranos) of Chota Nagpur, a sub-
division of the Bengal Presidency and as the indentureship system
developed, workers came from other areas of India including present
day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Madras.
By far the predominant numbers came from Bihar and Southern Uttar
Pradesh. This 19th century immigration would broadly define the
composition of the Guyana society today.

It is a little-recognized fact that Muslims were among the
initial recruits that comprised largely of Hindu Indians to British
Guiana, and Muslims continued to be part of subsequent indentured
shipments. Historical analyses, however, have tended to treat all
Indian immigrant workers (a large number became settlers) broadly as
a homogeneous group, that is, as Hindu Indians, and have neglected
to distinguish Indians on the basis of their religions. As such,
there is a dearth of reliable documentary evidence concerning Muslim
Indians in British Guiana. This essay attempts to trace the presence
the first Indian Muslims in British Guiana, 170 years after their
arrival, and to chronicle their contribution to the resurgence of
Islam in British Guiana. We hope that it would pioneer the filling
of the academic void of an important chapter in the history of
Muslims and Islam in Guyana.

Introduction: Guyana

Christopher Columbus discovered the Guiana coast in 1498. Sir Walter
Raleigh, the first British explorer to Guiana in 1595, thought he
had found the golden city of El Dorado. However, the Dutch were the
first to settle Guiana in 1581 as three separate colonies – Berbice,
Demerara and Essequibo - establishing their first settlement on the
Pomeroon River. The colonies changed hands several times over the
centuries going from the Spanish, French and Dutch, culminating with
the British acquiring Guiana in 1814 (the Ango-Dutch Treaty); in
1831 the three colonies were consolidated into British Guiana
(Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America,
covering an area of approximately 215,000 square kilometers (or
83,000 square miles), roughly the size of Great Britain. Situated on
the north eastern shoulder of the continent, it is the third-
smallest country in South America after Suriname and Uruguay.
Georgetown, the capital city and main port, is densely populated
with more than 200,000 of the country's total population of about
750,000 inhabitants who are spread out mostly along the long
coastline with a small hinterland population.

Based on the results of the 2002 population census, the ethnic
breakdown is comprised of - East Indians (43 %); Africans (30%);
Mixed (17%) and Amerindians (17%), the Muslim population is
noticeably missing from this breakdown (Guyana Chronicle October
Figure 2 shows the breakdown of the ethnic population by
geographic region; while figure 3 gives the population breakdown by
ethnicity, based on information published by the Guyana Bureau of
Statistics .

Figure 2:

Figure 3: Population Distribution by Nationality
Background/Ethnicit y in 2002

According to the Guyana Bureau of Statistics in 2005 (based on the
results of the 2002 population census), the composition of the
religious affiliations showed a marked difference for the Muslim
population when compared to a year earlier – decreasing by 2.7%,
that is, from 10% in 2001 to 7.3% in 2002; as illustrated in figure
4 below . We dispute this figure based on field research as well as
discussions with various Islamic organizations in the country which
are all of the opinion that there must have been some
misrepresentation in the Bureau of Statistics tabulations. In fact,
the 2004 International Religious Report released by the US Bureau of
Democracy and Human Rights showed the religious affiliations [in
Guyana] as follows - Religious affiliations: Christian 50%, Hindu
35%, Muslim 10%, other 5%.

Figure 4: Distribution of Population by Religious Affiliation, 2002

The Rise of Islam in Hindustan

Hindustan, which included present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh,
and parts of Nepal and Afghanistan, was first invaded, the first in
a series of many invasions, by Arabs led by Mahommad Bin Qasim in
711 A.D. This resulted in the conquest of Sind and Punjab and
ushered in the beginning of the Islamic era in the Asian sub-
continent. This was followed by several subsequent invasions led by
other Arabs, Afghans and Turks, and around 1001, almost 300 years
after the first invasion by Bin Qasim, Muhammad Ghazni, an Afghan
Muslim invaded Sind.

The aim of these early invaders was not so much to spread Islam
in Hindustan but to plunder the riches from the regions. In 1191,
Muhammad of Ghaur, a Turk living in Afghanistan, invaded Sind,
overthrew the existing feudal Rajput rulers and established his own
empire that extended along most of Northern and Central India. He
then started an aggressive campaign to convert Hindus to Islam.
One of Ghaur's successors Qutb-ud-din Aibak, another Turk, was the
first to build many lavish buildings and mosques replete with ornate
carvings; one such structure was the Qutub Minar in Delhi, which is
the tallest brick minaret in the world and listed as one of UNESCO's
World Heritage Sites.

Most of the other prominent monuments in India are of Islamic
origin, constructed during the Mughal rule. These structures
incorporate Persian and Islamic architecture and garden-like
settings and are still standing today. Some of these include the
renowned Taj Mahal,7 The Delhi Red Fort (also known as Lal Qila),
Agra Fort, Jama Masjid, Badshahi Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri, and
Shalimar Gardens.

In 1526 Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur Khan, with his army consisting
of Persians, Turks, Arabs and Pashtuns defeated Ibrahim Lodi and
established the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire lasted until 1857
with the Sepoy Mutiny when the rule of the British East India
Company was transferred to the British Crown after Bahadur Shah, the
last Mughal Emperor was exiled to Burma and Lord John Charles
Canning was named the first Viceroy representing Queen Victoria, the
first Empress of India.

Shortly after the Mutiny, the British Prime Minister, Henry John
Temple in a letter to Lord Canning instructed him that, "every civil
building connected with Mahommedan tradition should be levelled to
the ground without regard to antiquarian veneration or artistic
predilection. "8 In his reply to the Prime Minister, Lord Canning
wrote, "the men who fought against us at Delhi were of both creeds;
probably in equal numbers and if we destroy or desecrate Mussulman
Mosques or Brahman Temples we do exactly what is wanting to band the
two antagonist races against ourselves... . as we must rule 150
million people by a handful of Englishmen, let us do it in the
manner best calculated to leave them divided (as in religion and
national feeling as they already are) and to inspire them with the
greatest possible awe of our power." 9

In a subsequent letter to the Governor of the North West
Provinces, Canning defined specific guidelines regarding the
employment of the natives from the different religions and castes.
He reaffirmed that the "exclusion of Mahomeddan, Rajpoots or even of
Brahmans should be a matter of management rather than of rule; and
indeed that it will be right to take an opportunity, though not just
yet, to show by an exception here and there, that the rule does not
exist. It is desirable that no class should feel that it had
henceforward nothing to expect from the government." 10

The devastating policy of "divide and rule" adopted after 1857,
fragmented Hindustan and even today its deadly effects are still
seen in both India and Pakistan. This "divide and rule" strategy was
implemented in many of Britain's colonies, the effects of which, as
in India and Pakistan, are still noticeable today on the two major
races (Africans and Indians) in Guyana and the Caribbean.

The early Muslim conquerors created new legal and administrative
systems that challenged and usually superceded or supplemented the
existing systems of social conduct and ethics, cultural norms and
mores. While these were a source of friction and conflict there were
also Muslim rulers who, in much of their secular practice, absorbed
or accommodated the local traditions and did not interfere in local
practices; they encouraged their subjects to continue with their
religious observances during the course of their daily lives.

The caste system alienated many Indians (Hindus and Muslims
alike, since the latter were also categorized into various castes)
both economically and socially; the zamindars for example, were like
feudal lords in the villages of India who totally controlled the
lives of millions of their fellow villagers. This was perhaps one of
the driving forces that attracted many Hindus to convert to Islam in
addition to its universal appeal of equality and brotherhood.
India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru asserted
that, "the invaders who came from the north, like so many of their
predecessors in more ancient times, were absorbed into Hindustan and
became part of her life." Nehru was of the belief that these
invaders "became Hindustani who integrated into the society through
intermarriages and every effort was made not to interfere with the
ways and customs of the local people." He also noted that while
there were other invasions of Hindustan prior to the introduction of
Islam, "it is wrong and misleading to talk of a Muslim invasion of
India or a Muslim period in India"; similarly, "it is wrong to refer
to the coming of the British to India as a Christian invasion or to
call the British period in India as a Christian period". Many,
however, do not hold this school of thought, since they are of the
belief that it was the Islamic and British presence that led to the
partition of Hindustan in 1947.

Marginalization of Muslims in Diaspora Studies

With the exception of two articles published by R.
Chickerie, "Muslims in Guyana" (1999) and "The Afghan Muslims of
Guyana and Suriname" (2003), very little has been written on
Guyanese Muslims. A brief look at Indo-Caribbean literature finds
East Indians portrayed as a homogeneous group. The symbols of one
dominant religious group are visible and Muslim presence in Guyana
and the Caribbean remains invisible and undifferentiated.

A general review of the historiography on Islam and Muslims in
Guyana shows that mostly non-Muslim scholars have focused mainly on
the annual commemoration of the Tadjah or Tazia festival up until
the 1940s in many villages around the country. This event was
observed on the 10th day of Muharram (first month of the Islamic
year) – a day of mourning to honor the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn
Ali and his brother Hassan, during "the Battle of Karbala" in 680
A.D.; this festival is central to the Shia Islamic belief . It is
worth making the point that Sunnis comprise the majority of Muslims
in the country.

We notice that scholarly works on Tazia in Guyana dwell more on
its popularity (with some Sunni Muslims and, later, an increasing
number of non-Muslims partaking in these festivities) when the
consumption of alcohol became part of the celebration that took on
more of a "carnival-like" atmosphere, gradually losing its religious
significance over the years. By 1917, towards the end of the Indian
Indentureship system, the festival became so secularized that its
annual celebration was promoted by owners of rumshops .

On the occasion of Guyana's independence in May 1966, Guyanese
historian P.P. Dial briefly touched on the Tazia celebrations 100
years earlier – in 1866 – when it was one of the biggest
celebrations ever held in the colony and a growing number of Creoles
took part in the revelry. This was a great concern for churchmen and
Christian priests who feared that their `flocks' were being
gradually converted to the Muslim and Hindu faiths with their
participation in the East Indians' religious celebrations
(especially Tazia and Holi) with the beating of drums, singing and
dancing in the streets. It was suggested that Creoles who took part
in these celebrations should be jailed and whipped, and greater
efforts were made by the churches and even the government to prevent
the Creoles from joining in Hindu and Muslim celebrations.

In March of 1866, one churchman concurred with most Christian
priests that, "they have seen the Creoles taking part in these
festivals and at all events it should not be and they cannot afford
to allow the Creoles of the colony who are removed ever so little
from heathenism and savagery to relapse." It was also the belief
that many Creoles who took part in the celebrations were probably
trying to reconnect with their "Fulani roots". The Fulanis,
primarily nomadic herders and traders, were the first African tribes
to convert to Islam many centuries ago and came to Guyana during
the period of slavery.
We observe that most of the literature on Indian indentureship by
Guyanese and Caribbean scholars demonstrate a pattern of
indifference to the Muslim presence among the 239,000 East Indians
who came to British Guiana during the period of indentureship (1838-
1917) and, in particular, the 94 Muslims that came aboard the first
two ships to the Colony. Other West Indian historians have also
noted this lapse, for instance, Jamaican scholar Sultana Afroz,
notes that the significance of the Islamic culture brought by the
Muslim indentured labourers to the Caribbean has largely been
overlooked due to the numerical dominance of Hindu labourers in the
indentureship system .

Two Surinamese scholars Ellen Bal and Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff
attempted to examine this omission and posed the following question
to their readers in general, and to Indians in particular: "is the
exclusion of Muslims because religion (Hinduism) is the core of
defining the Indian Diaspora"? They concluded that, "studies on the
Indian Diaspora are in fact studies on Hindus with Hinduism firmly
rooted in the present-day nation, and this means denying Muslims
their history as well as rendering them homeless". However, some
scholars on the other hand argue wrongly that since the spiritual
attachment of Muslims is not to the homeland – Hindustan – but to
the umma [it follows that] overseas Muslims of Indian origin should
not be considered as part of the Indian Diaspora.

Two films released a few years ago - "Guiana 1838" produced by
Guyanese Rohit Jagessar and "Jahaji Bhai", a documentary produced by
Suresh Pillai, an Indian national – both on the subject of Indian
Indentureship, make no mention of Muslims in either Guyana, Trinidad
or Suriname. Both omit the fact that Muslims were on board the first
two ships that arrived from India to British Guiana in 1838. Last
but not least, in an article on the results of the 2002 population
census, Mark Ramotar (Guyana Chronicle 13 October 2005) provides a
detailed composition of the religious affiliations; however, the
percentage of the Muslim population was again noticeably missing
and, even though this breakdown was contained in the Guyana Bureau
of Statistics summary table, it nevertheless was not deemed
significant enough to be included in the analysis.

The issue of Muslim invisibility is succinctly articulated in a
paper titled "Indian Identity and Religion in Caribbean Literature:
Shikwa/Complain, " Dr. Abrahim H. Khan of the University of Toronto
argues: "The literature misses the complex relation between religion
and identity and tends to marginalize non-Hindus among Indians in
the Caribbean area" and "ignores important differences in the
particularities of socio-ethnic experience among East-Indians in the
Caribbean region." It makes no reference to the fact that "the
Indian identity is a complex idea, at least on the theoretical
level, let alone the relationship between it and religion." In
summarizing his review of the Caribbean Literature, Khan asserts
that the omission of the presence and experience of Muslims in the
Caribbean is "…hegemonic in its presentation of Indian identity. It
presents the East Indian population as a homogeneous socio-religious
community which is sensitive to only one set of symbols — those of
the Hindu tradition."

In the previous four paragraphs above, there have attempts to
give reasons for the lack of notice or even indifference to the
Muslim presence in the saga of Indian indentured immigration to
Guyana and the Caribbean. These explanations are all theoretical or
simply subjective surmises. To place it into the realm of debate
would needlessly and dangerously elicit suggested reasons, for or
against, the omission when the simple fact is that the omission
needs to be quickly remedied to fill a serious hiatus in Indo-
Guyanese and Indo-Caribbean history.

To the casual viewer/reader of some of these materials the
message conveyed might be that no Muslims came to Guyana during the
period of indentureship and that there are no Muslims living in
Guyana presently. This pattern of invisibility extends throughout
the entire Indo-Caribbean. Khan writes, "The literature is
misleading for those readers, whether inside or outside of the Indo-
Caribbean region, wanting to learn and reflect about how they become
persons in affirming Indian identity with respect to their religious
tradition…" It is against this backdrop that this essay examines
some of the historical misrepresentations of the Muslim population
in our society.

The Arrival of the First Hindustani Muslim

On 5th May 1838 Islam was introduced in British Guiana with the
first batch of East Indian indentured servants whom an Immigration
Agent of the Colony, Mr. R. Duff, referred to as "the advance guards
of the race destined to have so great an effect on the future of
British Guiana."

Based on the information compiled from the two ships' logs of the
immigrants 94 passengers, or 21 per cent of them were found to
belong to the Muslim religion -- the second largest group after the
Dhangur tribesmen and women. Interestingly enough, on the
embarkation list, Dhangurs carried Islamic names that seem to
suggest that some may have converted to Islam prior to their

The Whitby was the first to set sail from Calcutta on Saturday,
13th of January 1838 with 267 immigrants and after 112 days at sea
it dropped anchor off the coast of Berbice on that eventful day,
Saturday 5th May 1838. A total of 181 immigrants were unloaded - 166
men, six women who accompanied their husbands, two boys, five girls
and two infants whose gender were not stated. Of the 166 males, 45
were Muslims, two of them – Ally Buckus and Chummare – were
recruited to serve as mates on board the ship. Of the 45 Muslim men,
five were teenaged boys ranging between the ages of 14 and 15 who
were registered as indentured laborers to be paid wages in the
amount of six farthings monthly. Among the six women only one was a
Muslim – Sheebah, aged 18 years, who accompanied her husband, Beejo,
number 92 in the embarkation register. This first batch of
indentures to Berbice was "bounded" to Plantation Highbury, East
Coast Berbice, which was owned by Messrs. Davsons and Company and
administered by John Cameron.

The Whitby then sailed to Demerara where the remaining
immigrants: 82 men, two women, one boy and one girl were indentured
to James Matthews, Plantation Bellevue, Property of Andrew Colville,
esq., of London. One Muslim man, Nophur aged 25 from Bancoorah
(District of Bankura), State of West Bengal died on the voyage,
while another Muslim – Jhurri - whose name did not appear on the
embarkation list, was shown as having disembarked with the other
passengers. Of the 82 men, 17 were Muslims, one was a sardar, Nuthaw
Khaw (spelt Nertha Khan on the disembarkation list) while,
Jhurreechuck (shown as Thurry Huck on the disembarkation list)
served as a mate on board the ship. Khan converted to Christianity
shortly upon his arrival in the colony and was looked upon favorably
by the Minister of the Parish . Indians who converted to
Christianity were more favourably considered for certain jobs both
on the sugar plantations and in the Public Service.
Table 1: The Whitby – Distribution of Immigrants

Plantations Male Female Children TOTAL
John Cameroon, Highbury Berbice 166 6 9 181
James Matthews, Bell-Vue, Vreed-en-Hoop 82 2 2 86
TOTAL 248 8 11 267
Source: Extracted from the names of immigrants contained in "Report
of the Hill Coolies, pages 34-37, Enclosure No. 6 from Governor
Light to the Marques of Normandy, 5 September 1839.
The Hesperus, laden with 171 passengers, departed Calcutta 16 days
after the Whitby for British Guiana on Monday, 29th January 1838 and
landed later the same day as The Whitby on Saturday 5th May 1838, at
Port Demerara with 157 servants– 141 men, 6 women, 5 boys and 5
girls (which meant that 14 immigrants on the Hesperus died during
the voyage). Ninety-four men and 2 women were bound to John
Gladstone owner of Plantations Vreed-en-Hoop and Vriedestein. Among
this batch of indentured servants on Gladstone Plantations 14 were
Muslims, one of them – Jeewoon Khaw (Irrwan Khan) was accompanied by
his wife (Bharrupp), there was also a Pathan - Coda Buckus, aged 26
or 27, from Ara, Bihar. The remaining 61 immigrants from the
Hesperus comprising 47 males, 4 women and the 10 children were
bounded to John and Henry Moss Plantation at Anna Regina, Essequibo.
Among this latter batch there were 11 Muslim men, one of the men,
Uckloo, was accompanied by his wife and four children. At least two
Muslim men died on the Hesperus – Soonawoolah, and Kryamt; while one
immigrant - Kyut Alle - whose name did not appear on the embarkation
list was shown on the list of passengers that disembarked from the

Table 2: The Hesperus – Distribution of Immigrants

By Plantations Male Female Children TOTAL
Gladstone Estates, Vreed-en-hoop 94 2 0 96
John and Henry Moss, Anna Regina 47 4 10 61
TOTAL 141 6 10 157
Source: Extracted from the names of immigrants contained in "Report
of the Hill Coolies, pages 37-38, Enclosure No. 6 from Governor
Light to the Marques of Normandy, 5 September 1839.
The early period of Indian indentureship was extremely disorganized
in many aspects; one area of concern was that the recording of the
passengers' data was not done in any systematic manner with the
result that there were tremendous discrepancies of the immigrants'
biographic data. Assuming that the information were recorded
correctly at the point of embarkation, the British agents who were
assigned the task of recording the list of immigrants that landed in
the colony made several mistakes in the compilation process. In
comparing the two lists (embarkation and disembarkation) , the
information of the immigrants that embarked on the vessels differs
vastly from the disembarkation list. It certainly appears as if one
set of immigrants boarded the vessel and a totally different batch
disembarked. Among the many inaccuracies for those that came on the
Hesperus, the ages given at the time of departure were totally
different from the ages shown upon their arrival in British Guiana,
for example, Deeallee's age upon departure from Calcutta was given
as 24, and standing at a height of 5' 3"; upon arrival in Demerara
his age was shown as 60 years old and his height as 5' 7". In
addition, there were a number of names that appeared on the
disembarkation list that were not on the embarkation list. There
were three names that appeared twice on the disembarkation list
where the individuals were bounded for two different plantations.

The list of inaccuracies continues: the Urdu word for Muslim –
Musulman – was spelt in various ways and the different castes,
states, districts, police depots and villages were all frequently
misspelled on the immigration certificates. Although the majority of
the Hindu names were bastardized beyond recognition, many of the
Islamic names were a bit easier to recognize, while in some cases
their scheduled caste was listed instead of their religion. For
example, Coda (or Khuda) was a popular prefix to Bux (as we have
seen in the case of Coda Buckus). Later Bux morphed into Baksh,
another popular name among the men, was mis-spelt repeatedly, and
eventually became Bacchus.

While most Muslims, on average, have three to four names the
British Parliamentary records for these first Hindustani Muslims
reveal only one or two names for them (and in some cases two names
were combined as one), with Mohammed and Ally being the most popular
names. From the brief information given on the certificates of each
immigrant one must try to get a good idea of the various cultural
characteristics (differences as well as the similarities) among the
Indians, based on their caste and villages. In later years, Muslim
immigrants also came from as far away as Quetta in Baluchistan and a
number of Pathans from the North West Frontier Provinces as well as
from Kabul in Afghanistan. A common kinship was forged on the
voyage to British Guiana with shipmates calling their fellow
travelers as Jahaji Bhai; the Urdu word for ship is jahaaz while
bhai is Hindi for brother –marriages on the ships were not unusual.

Early Plantation Life: New Form of Slavery
Upon their arrival in the colony the Indians were housed in communal
quarters either in "logies" or "bound coolies yards" that once
housed the former slaves for weekly groceries, monthly wages and
clothing per year for the immigrant). Very shortly after their
introduction, stories of severe ill treatment, at the hands of the
planters' overseers, including flogging with the cat-o-nine tail,
were reported to Governor Henry Light. On the 31st January 1839
Special Justice Coleman was dispatched to inspect conditions on the
five plantations. He found evidence of extremely harsh treatment
with many Indian immigrant workers suffering from wounds inflicted
by the overseers and drivers; some of the latter were former slaves.

In Justice Coleman's report he mentioned the incident of the
first two immigrants (Jumun and Pultun, both of whom were Muslims
from Bihar) indentured to Gladstone's Plantation at Vreed-en-Hoop.
These two were the first to rebel against the slave-like treatment
and conditions under which they were forced to work. They both ran
away from the plantation on the 11th October 1838; unfortunately,
shortly after their flight for freedom the bodies of two men were
found at Mahaica that were believed to be those of the first two
Indian rebels. Joseph Beaumont, who served as a Chief Justice in
British Guiana, in his book –The New Slavery: An Account of Indian
and Chinese Immigrants in British Guiana (London: Ridgeway, 1871),
described this new form of slavery as "a rotten system, rooted upon
slavery, grown on its stale soul, emulating the worst abuses, and
only more dangerous because it presents itself under false colours,
whereas slavery bore the brand of infamy upon its forehead."

Based on Justice Coleman's inquiry into the rumors of ill-
treatment of the Indians, Mr. Young, the Government Secretary, by
order of his Excellency in a letter addressed to James Stuart Esq.,
the attorney to the property of John Gladstone, reported as
follows: "according to Elizabeth Caesar a former house slave she
gave evidence that `The Coolies were locked up in the sick house,
and next morning they were flogged with a cat-o'-nine- tails; the
manager was in the house, and they flogged the people under his
house; they were tied to the post of the gallery of the manager's
house; I cannot tell how many licks; he gave them enough. I saw
blood. When they were flogged at manager's house, they rubbed salt
pickle on their backs'." Guyanese historian, Peter Ruhomon wrote
about the treatment of the coolies "…. that the importers of Indians
contemplated the grinding of sugar out of the bones and sinews of
their Indian labourers, so long as they are fit to work, and as they
wear out, to supply their places by fresh importations. " Another
historian, Professor Hugh Tinker wrote of the Indians that - "… if
they were to survive as human beings their survival depended largely
on their own powers of resilience. They devised their own past-
times, recreating some semblance of the lost India in their
festivals. But it was not much, and often their attempts to forget
the cane fields ended only in drunken oblivion. When goaded beyond
their apparently infinite endurance and patience, they would try to
rebel; but the protest almost always ended in repression". Reverend
C.F. Andrews, in his Impressions of British Guiana, 1930: An
Emissary's Assessment (edited and with an Introduction by Basdeo
Mangru. Chicago: Adams, 2007) complained about the degradation of
Indians (both Hindus and Muslims) due to rum drinking since their
dislodgement from India.

In a second report on ill-treatment of the Indians by Sir M.
McTurk, another of the Commissioners appointed by the Court of
Policy to report on the treatment of the immigrants, when he visited
the hospital on the Gladstone plantation observed: "the coolies in
it were not suffering merely from sores; they had mortified ulcers,
their flesh rotting on their bones, their toes dropping off and some
of them were in a dangerous state from fever, and all were in the
utmost despondency. " On Plantation Belle-Vue, it was reported that
20 immigrants had died from diseases contracted in the colony, and
another 29 were "in a wretched state from ulcers many of whom in all
probability, will die; and should they survive, some of them would
be rendered unfit to support themselves, from the loss of their
toes, and part of their feet -- the sick-house presents a spectacle
pitiable to behold". When news of their slave-like treatment
reached Hindustan, the British Government suspended Indian
immigration in 1841 due to protests from anti-indentureship
interests from within Hindustan.

During the first 18 months of their arrival on the plantations 67
immigrants died in the colony, and upon expiration of their contract
in 1843 a total of about 98 had died. At the end of their
contractual obligations a total of 236 Indians (206 men, 12 women,
14 boys and 4 girls) departed for India in two ships, the Louisa
Baillie and Water Ditch (Witch), and about 90 immigrants opted to
remain in British Guiana.

Both East Indians and the manumitted Africans who had made
Guyana their home in the 19th century had gone through the same type
of soul-destroying conditions, though the Africans were more
affected and as such retained less of their ancestral culture and
mores than the Indians. The basic reasons for this difference in
cultural retention were firstly, that by far the highest numbers of
African slaves ever in the colony were here during the last three
decades of the 18th century and at the turn of the century. At this
time, the planter class were less inclined to take cognizance
of "amelioration" or obey the laws protecting slaves in contrast to
the 1830s and thereafter when Indian immigrants settled in
increasing numbers and when the government in Britain and a body of
local opinion evidenced concern as to the plight of the immigrants.
And secondly, the African cultural tradition brought here was oral
as against that of the Indian which was written and as such was
easier for perpetuation.

These ancestral links have been a point of controversial debates
between scholars from both sides of the ethnic divide in which some
have claimed that Guyanese Indians are living in a house that the
African built. Barbadian novelist, George Lamming, reminds the
region and beyond, "these Indian hands – whether in British Guiana
or Trinidad – have fed all of us. These hands were to contribute, as
much as the hands of African slaves and their descendants, to the
Caribbean experiment of giving shape to a unique expression of human
civilization. They have taught us by example the value of money; for
they respect money as only people with a high sense of communal
responsibility can". Lamming also recognized that, there can be no
creative discovery of the `West Indian civilization' without the
central and informing influence of the Indian presence in the
colonies. And that further, there can be no history of Trinidad and
Guyana that is not also a history of the humanization of the
landscape fashioned by the importation of Indian labour.


There can be no doubt that the institutional establishment of Islam
in British Guiana in 1838 (and subsequent years when
fresh "recruits" were brought into the colony from Hindustan)
contributed to religious diversity in the colony — Muslim immigrants
brought with them the richness of the Mughal culture: the Urdu
language, arts, cuisine, fashions and lifestyle. Though Indians came
mostly from the countryside villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,
there was a vicarious cultural consciousness of urban centres of
Mughal culture and learning such as Lucknow and so on. Soon after
their arrival in the colony the early Muslims became organized
despite the lack of the traditional structures of mosques with the
characteristic minarets or domes. They likely worshipped in open air
spaces, clinging to their traditional Islamic observances such as,
Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha, Youman Nabi as well as the Tazia festival.

In 1870 a visiting Royal Commission reported that there were only
two temples in the colony, and by 1891, 21 years later, when D.W.D
Comins visited the Caribbean on a mission from the Government of
Hindustan to investigate the conditions of Indians, he reported that
there were 29 mosques and 33 temples in British Guiana. By 1917, at
the end of the indentureship system there were some 46 mosques and
43 Hindu temples. According to the Central Islamic Organization of
Guyana (CIOG), today, there are about 140 mosques scattered
throughout Guyana. The 1930s saw the emergence of two Muslim
organizations, the British Guiana Islamic Association (BGIA) led by
Maulvi Nasir in 1934, and the Sadr Anjuman-E-Islam of British Guiana
led by Maulana Syed Shamsuddin in 1936. From meager beginnings
since 1838, Islam has today effloresced into several active Islamic
groups that include the Hujjatul Ulamaa, the Muslim Youth
Organization (MYO), the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT), the Guyana
Muslim Mission Limited (GMML), the Guyana United Sad'r Islamic
Anjuman (GUSIA), the Tabligh Jammat, the Rose Hall Town Islamic
Center, and the Salafi Group, among others.

It is believed that there were a number of highly educated
Muslims among these early arrivals to the colony. According to one
Imam, several years ago there were two Hafiz-ul-Quran who both bore
the last name Khan and who resided in Clonbrook on the East Coast
Demerara. Among the indentured servants there were a number of
Afghan immigrants led by Gool Mohamed Khan who took the initiative
in building the Queenstown Jama Masjid in Georgetown, one of the
oldest masjids in Guyana. Gool Mohamed Khan, a member of the
Nasruddin Khel tribe, was born in 1853 in a small village of Moorni,
District of Dir in Afghanistan. He migrated to British Guiana on
February 14, 1869, at the age of sixteen; he was very vocal in the
tiny Afghan community in the colony and he mobilized them in the
effort to build the Masjid in 1895.

End of the Tazia Festival

Among the early Indians who came to British Guiana, there was a
handful of Muslims that were from the Shia sect, which was not
unusual, since North India has a large Shia population. These Shias
brought with them the practice of Tazia, but it gradually lost its
religious significance over the years, as mentioned above. As a
result, on December 4th, 1949 the United Sad'r Anjuman-I-Islam and
the BGIA under the outstanding leadership of Rahaman Baksh Gajraj,
during the Second All-Guiana Muslim Conference held on Sunday,
December 4, 1949 passed resolution number 6, for the cessation of
the festival, copy to be forwarded to the Government for
transmission to His Majesty in Great Britain. This historic
resolution read as follows:

WHEREAS the observance of the martyrdom of Imam Hoosein and his
family has lost entirely its religious significance; and

WHEREAS in this Colony persons of other religions take an active
part in promoting Tazia, for the sole purpose of entertainment,
debauchery and personal gain, all of which are contrary to the
spirit and letter of Islamic Laws and regulations; and

WHEREAS such practices constitute a gross insult to the revered
memory of the distinguish grandson of the Holy Prophet (O.W.B.P.),
and are a flagrant distortion of these religious rites;

BE IT RESOLVED by this second All-Guiana Muslim Conference that
Government be requested to pass legislation prohibiting the
construction of such symbols, and both actual and implied, and such
other indulgences falsely associated with the observance of Tazia .

Loss of Muslim Mother Tongue (Urdu)

The majority of the early Indian immigrants spoke Urdu or
Hindustani, Koshali, Braj - which is more than two thousand years
old - Koeli, Bagheli, Hundeli and Bhojpuri, the latter being the
dominant language of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The enforced use of
the official language, English, contributed to the decline and
almost disappearance of Urdu and Hindi. Up until the 1950s both the
dua (supplication) and Khutbah (sermon) were read in Urdu. While in
many masjids today the dua is still recited in Urdu, unfortunately
this is not the case for the Khutbah which is delivered in English.
Despite several applications by interested Muslims to get the
British colonial government's assistance to encourage Urdu and
Arabic Education in the madrasas (schools annexed to Masjids), the
government, for some reason, did not entertain the applications and
no efforts were made to pursue the matter further.

In 1941, when Muslims saw evidence that the Urdu language was on
the decline, the BGIA, during a special conference called to discuss
a uniform system of Muslim Religious Education in accordance with
the requirements of the Education Code of British Guiana, adopted
the following resolution:
WHEREAS it is an absolute necessity that all Muslim children obtain
religious education to preserve and maintain the religion of Islam
in British Guiana, and
WHEREAS there is no provision in Government-aided schools for any
religious education to be obtained except that of the Christian
religion, and
WHEREAS there are several Muslims Schools in British Guiana which
are endeavouring to teach religion and are being carried on by
voluntary Muslim donations which is a distinct hardship in most
cases, and
WHEREAS these Muslim schools are not organized on any systematic
basis of education, and
WHEREAS the Muslims of British Guiana are taxpayers similar to all
other religious denominations and as such are entitled to receive
Government assistance in this matter of education, and
WHEREAS the Education Code of BG provides that the Director of
Education may grant Government aid to schools to teach East Indian
languages, and
WHEREAS the said Education Code requires certain conditions to be
observed before such aid may be granted, and
WHEREAS with the growing population of Muslim children in BG and the
necessity of their religious education it is imperative to seek
Government aid to carry out this most important object, and
WHEREAS without proper organization of the schools it will not be
possible to obtain such aid:
BE IT RESOLVED that this Special Conference of representative Muslim
Leaders of British Guiana immediately forms a Governing Body in
accordance with the requirements of the Education Code of BG to
control and regulate Muslim religious education in British Guiana
along with an Advisory Committee, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Governing Body in consultation with
the Advisory Committee immediately begins to organize the system of
Muslim education in British Guiana with a view of applying for
recognition by and aid from Government in this direction.
However, nothing came out of this resolution and gradually the Urdu
language has continued its decline. Based on the authors' field
research, up until the 1950s many immigrants and their families
corresponded with their relatives back in Hindustan in Urdu. Despite
this bleak picture, it should be noted that most of the films
locally exhibited are in Hindi/Urdu with sub-titles, and other than
English, most of the songs heard on the electronic media are
Hindi/Urdu and Urdu is still heard in the Masjids and home religious
functions. There is a growing consciousness for the revival of Urdu.

Marriages, Male/Female Disparity and its Effects on the Social Fabric

The male/female ratio on the first two ships was almost 28 males to
one female, although this trend improved slightly over the years of
indentureship, the shortage of women naturally led to many serious
problems. An article published in the Royal Gazette on the 8th May
1838, just three days after the arrival of the East Indians in
British Guiana, highlighted the gross "disparity between the male-
female ratio and the effects this had on the male psyche". K. O.
Laurence in his book, A Question of Labour, wrote that the colonial
government ignored the religious and social problems among the
immigrants caused by the shortage of women. This led to sexual
promiscuity and jealousy that, in turn, resulted in the murder of
wives or sexual partners. Laurence attributed this social breakdown
to the "absence of proper marriage law" and the disintegration of
home and family affected both the Hindu and Muslim communities.

The lack of recognition in the colony of weddings solemnized
according to both Hindu and Islamic rites was another dilemma. There
was an outcry by some of the immigration representatives in
Hindustan "that marriage celebrated according to the personal laws
of both parties should be registered and recognized" in the colony.
Throughout the period of indentureship the colonial authorities
consistently refused to grant Hindus and Muslims the same marriage
rights as Christians. In 1860 the British Colonial Government passed
the "Heathen Marriage Ordinance No. 10"; however, this law was
flawed as it did not recognize non-Christian marriages. In 1913 a
Commission of Inquiry, sent by the British in India, comprised of
James Mac Neill and Chimman Lal, visited British Guiana. They
recommended that inspectors of immigrants and a limited number of
Hindu and Muslims priests should be allowed to register marriages.

Under the Heathen Marriage Ordinance, before a marriage was
contracted the parties were required to sign a declaration that no
impediment exists against the proposed union either by previous or
existing marriage, blood relation or parental dissent. The district
magistrate then gave each party a certificate to produce to the
Immigration Agent-General in Georgetown, who then validated the
marriage and issued a marriage registration certificate for a two
dollars fee. Between 1860 and 1871 an average of 12 marriages were
registered annually under the 1860 ordinance and 7 between 1904 and
1914. Consequently, most of the non-Christian marriages were
considered invalid by colonial law, which meant that the majority of
children were registered as born out of wedlock and therefore
illegitimate; as such they were considerable difficulties over
succession to properties. One reason why several marriages were not
registered was because one or both of the contracting parties were
below the prescribed legal age limit, 12 years for girls and 15 for
boys. The raising of the minimum age for girls to 14 years in 1888
may have served as a further hardship for parents. On the other
hand, lack of registration of marriages among the immigrants allowed
fathers to "sell and re-sell" daughters several times without
penalty. For instance, Sarah Morton wrote of a case in 1916, in
which a father sold his daughter nine times for money and goods. On
each occasion of her `marriage,' he refused to deliver her to her

It was not until the early 1960s under Dr. Cheddi Jagan's
Premiership that marriages performed by Muslim (and Hindu) religious
leaders were recognized. Prior to that all marriages conducted
according to Indian religious rites were not recognized by the
colonists, hence when a man died his property was taken over by the
planters since it could not be transferred to his widow or any
children born from the union. Dr. Jagan nationalized over 51 primary
schools in the early 1960's. He saw them as a "mouthpiece of the
Christian denomination" and said that the control of education in
British Guiana by the Church was a grave injustice to non-
Christians. He asserted that Indians are "not accommodated within
the social hierarchy, that they were regarded as outcasts … but they
stuck to Hinduism and Islam despite efforts by the Christian
missionaries to proselytize them."

Efforts to Convert Muslims

Just like the forced conversion of captive Africans to the teachings
of Christianity, efforts were made to convert East Indians but they
were not very successful. Islam survived in an ocean of evangelism
that started in 1838 when, Nuthaw Khaw (Nertha Khan) converted to
Christianity shortly upon arrival in the colony and "was looked upon
very favourably by the Minister of the Parish (Page 10, Ref. No.5,
Governor Light to the Marques of Normandy, 12th Aug.1839). Reverend
E. Solomon who was in British Guiana in 1885, responded to a
question as to why the missionary wanted to convert the Indians. His
reply was, "For salvation, there can be only one true path … it is
of vital importance that all who have souls be saved and guided to
the right road irrespective of rank or color." Reverend Solomon
also stated that the "Mussalman Mullahs" and the Indians
are "ignorant and careless" and have "few religious books".
Laurence noted: "Christian missionaries waged a strong crusade and
saw themselves "in a state of perpetual warfare against Hinduism and

The missionaries considered the Prophet Muhammad "false" and
Hindu deities "wicked." Not surprisingly, the Muslims were strong in
their faith; they resisted conversion and impressed all the
missionary groups as being generally harder to approach than the
Hindus. There were several examples of determined resistance and
fierce opposition to conversion by relatives of candidates, and
violence was sometimes threatened. And, as Bisnauth pointed out,
the Muslims were deemed "Fakirs" and stereotyped as being lazy,
immoral and responsible for disrupting the tranquility of village
life by their "fanaticism" .

Nonetheless, Islam survived in Guyana through an ongoing
struggle. Indian Muslims in Guyana have had a long history of
resistance dating back to the 11th October 1838, when two Muslims –
Jummun and Pultun escaped the clutches of the planters. The bodies
discovered shortly afterwards at Mahaica, in the bushes were thought
to be those of the two "runaway coolies". In the Rosehall uprising
of 1913, mainly Muslims were at the forefront "battling" the
injustices on the plantation: Moula Bux, Jahangir Khan, Dildar Khan,
Chotey Khan, Aladi, and Amirbaksh.


No doubt, the arrival of the Muslims from India to the colony of
British Guiana marked an important chapter in the history of Islam
and Muslims of the Americas. It ushered in Islam and enriched the
colony's social landscape. The absorption of a steady stream of
immigrants (from 1838 to 1917) of diverse ethnic, cultural and
religious characteristics into a society that was not clearly
defined presents a fascinating subject for sociological analysis.
The process of assimilation and integration is still at work but the
surprising thing about British Guiana is not the diversity of the
segments of its population, but the extent to which common ideals
and aspirations have replaced sectional isolation.

Today in Guyana, as compared to the 1970s, there is less intra-
community controversy as to the cultural aspects of Islam. The
difference that existed between the older generation who would like
to preserve our Hindustani Islamic tradition and those who wanted to
introduce Wahabism is abating.

Although Indian indentureship ended officially in 1917, between
1921 and 1922 over 400 Indian immigrants were brought to the colony
under contracts of service to work on various plantations. In
addition, several others came as ordinary settlers. In March 1926,
the Governor of British Guiana received a telegram from the Viceroy
of India informing him that migration of a limited number of
indentured labourers was approved but on certain strict conditions.
The plantation owners accepted these conditions readily since they
were desperately in need of additional labourers to work in the
fields. With their encouragement, the draft conditions were approved
by the British Guiana legislature. The Viceroy was informed of the
approval of the conditions, and the Indian Imperial Council finally
approved the emigration proposals in late March 1926. Under this new
contract, only 173 Indians (amounting to about 50 families) arrived
in British Guiana in the same year. However, in the following year
(1927), the British Guiana Government found that the costs of
transporting the immigrants were too high, and thus further
migration of servants from India was discouraged. Emigration from
India finally ended in 1928.

End Notes




Last Updated ( Friday, 06 February 2009 )
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