Prea Persaud argues that “jhandis”, triangular flags placed on bamboo and planted near homes and temples, are not just a religious symbol but an identity marker that indicates the presence of Indo-Caribbeans. Indo-Caribbeans use jhandis as both a proclamation of their faith as well as a way to combat what they view as attempts to erase their culture and history.
Fig. 1: Jhandi flags near the Temple in the Sea. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
Trinidad, like many Caribbean islands, is a vibrant mix of culture, flavors, and color. What makes this island unique, though, is its large population of Indo-Caribbeans. Descendants of laborers brought to the Caribbean through the indentured labor trade, Indo-Caribbeans are now the island’s largest ethnic group. Indo-Caribbeans have transformed Trinidad’s landscape and culture by building Hindu temples and mosques, infusing Indian flavors and spices into the cuisine, and creating new musical forms which combine Indian and African sounds. Adding to the color of the island are also multicolored triangular flags, called jhandi flags [i] which can often be spotted in the front yards of homes and by Hindu temples. The flags, which are inserted onto bamboo poles, are planted into the ground after Hindus complete their puja, a ritual prayer performed in homes or in temples. The flags represent various deities and are place in the ground as a symbol of the deity’s victory, or of good over evil. For Indo-Trinidadians, though, jhandi flags are more than just a religious symbol. They are a marker of an identity and a reminder to the larger community of the presence of both Indians and Hinduism on the island. For Indo-Trinidadians who worry about the erasure of their culture, the jhandi flags boldly state, “we are here and we are staying.”
In 1797, Britain forcefully overtook Trinidad from the Spanish and gradually phased in English law and institutions. As the anti-slavery movement in Britain increased, pressure was put on the crown to end slavery leading to the gradual release of 20,000 slaves of African descent on the island (Vertovec, 43). Although the abolition of slavery was declared in 1834, slaves were required to work an “apprenticeship” period until 1840. At first, plantation owners capitalized on the newly freed Africans who settled or squatted on land near the plantations by providing them with high wages and offering benefits such as huts to rent. Colonialists were unhappy with the power the freed slaves now held and worked to reinsert their dominance by continuing their ill treatment of the workers. Eventually Afro-Caribbeans became rebellious, refusing to work under unfavorable conditions. By 1838, sugar production decreased and the industry was in crisis. Plantation workers cited the labor shortage as the main cause. As a result, a number of immigration plans were put into action in order to provide a steady and dependable supply of laborers.
The most prominent and successful of these plans was one in which foreign laborers signed a contract to work for five, or in some cases ten, years on the plantations with a partly paid return passage when their contracts expired (43). Initially Chinese workers were brought to the Caribbean, but while they proved to be a hardworking and docile group, they were unsuited to the tropical heat and therefore undependable. The British then turned to India for their workforce. Although the costs associated with bringing Indian laborers were high, they were regarded as a cheaper and more controllable source of labor in the longer term than the freed Africans. The first Indians to arrive in the Caribbean were brought to Guyana in 1838, but it was not until 1845 that Indian indentured laborers were introduced to Trinidad (43-4). By 1917 over half a million Indians had been brought to the Caribbean with about 144,000 going to Trinidad between 1845 and 1920, the year the indentured labor system was abolished (Younger, 95).
Once in Trinidad, Indians found themselves in conditions that were only marginally better than slavery: “wages were low, people were housed in barracks, sanitary conditions and health care were primitive, and there were few female migrants and no provision was made for East Indian cultural needs” (Tata and Evans, 26). Although Indians initially worked side by side with freed Africans, they were aware that their presence was not entirely welcomed by Afro-Caribbeans. Indentured labor was seen by the larger community as simply a new form of slavery and as such Indians replaced the ex-slaves’ position as the lowest of the classes. Anthropologist Viranjini Munasinghe notes that the freed African population resented not the plantation owners who created the system, but the Indians who came to represent the unjust structure (Munasinghe, 65). Afro-Caribbeans blamed Indians for their willingness to work for lower wages thereby stripping Afro-Caribbeans of their bargaining power with plantation owners. The tension between Afro-Trinidadians and Indians was soon extended to life outside the plantations. Munasinghe states that although “the initial causes of this friction [between Blacks and Indians] were economic, they soon took on a cultural meaning” as plantation owners exploited the hostility already evident between the two groups as a way to both drive labor competition and keep the masses divided (Munasinghe, 43).
Provoking the animosity between these two groups served colonialists in more than one way. With anti-slavery sentiments still strong in Britain, colonialists were under pressure to prove that indentured labor was not simply slavery under a different name. As a result, the British government became more intimately involved in the recruitment and treatment of the laborers than they had been during slavery. In his article “West Indian Orientalism,” Amar Wahab writes: “Instead of the plantation being responsible for indentured labor, the crown was now responsible for the protection of immigrants to legitimize this new system of labor importation as one which not only cared for but improved the oriental subject in the New World – i.e. the plantation as a civilizing mechanism” (Wahab, 286). The result, therefore, was a double discourse in which colonialists needed to both justify indentured labor while at the same time keeping Indians in an inferior position and preventing the joining of Black and Indian forces on the estates.
In their justification for indentured labor, colonialists emphasized the need for Indian workers through picturesques which highlighted the workers’ role in maintaining the plantation. Wahab explains that these picturesques illustrated the working bodies of Indians unlike pre-emancipation artwork which depicted slaves as “aesthetic subjects” and post-emancipation paintings in which the labor was absent “signaling the regression of black subjects who now had more control over their labor” (289). These picturesques naturalized Indian laborers, describing them positively, while also confining them to the space of the plantation, implicitly indicating their lack of mobility and their position as cultural “others” (295). Wahab argues that British West Indian discourse, rooted in assumptions that regarded Indians as irrational, “re-invented coolies on the plantations as industrious and in line with Victorian yardsticks of industry and rationality” (291). The plantations, then, were viewed as the disciplining mechanism through which the primitive, uncivilized Indian became moral and refined.
Although stereotypes of the lazy Indian was abandoned in depictions of indentured workers on plantations, old notions about Indians as strange, different, and backwards remained dominant in the Caribbean. Hence even as colonialists argued that the plantation was key to the civilizing process, Indians were still denied New World status. As such Indians occupied an ambiguous position in the Caribbean – they were no longer seen as part of the Old World but neither were they fully accepted as part of the New World. Patricia Mohammad argues that “Whether real or imagined, such acts and ideas continue to shape a discourse that has persisted about the idolatry of Hinduism versus Christianity, and the difference of Indo-Caribbean versus Afro-Caribbean culture” (Mohammad, 59). As Indians became more politically powerful in places like Trinidad and Guyana, they would continue to draw boundaries around this same third, in-between space they occupied during colonialism. It is a strategic move on the part of Indo-Caribbeans, then, to remain a separate group even while continuing to shape the larger society in order to make a more prominent role for themselves. This move is motivated by the perception that the culture of Indo-Caribbeans is under attack and at risk of being wiped out. Here I want to give one key example with the Temple in the Sea.
The Temple in the Sea was built in the 1930s by a single man, Sewdass Sadhu. The story, probably embellished over the years, is that Sewdass, an indentured laborer, tried several times to build a temple but each time the temple was destroyed because it was built on plantation land and he was thrown in jail. Finally, he piled up rocks into the sea and built the temple off the shore, claiming that no one could own the sea. The temple is now considered a national heritage site and is a popular tourist destination. Over the years, Indo-Caribbeans have used the site as a reminder of the history of indentured labor and the particular struggles Indians face both preserving their culture and rituals and finding a space for themselves in the greater community. In 1996, the temple was vandalized. The vandals smashed the deities within the temple and attempted to burn the broken pieces in the center of the altar. Indo-Trinidadian leaders argued that the destruction of the temple, despite being cited as a national symbol, demonstrated the prejudice that Indians continue to face in Trinidad. For Indo-Trinidadians, the vandalism was proof that Indians were still seen as “other” or “outsiders” irrespective of their history on the island and the contributions they have made to the nation. Mohammad argues that this “otherness” is both a label put onto Indians by the larger society and one that they embrace themselves. Fearing the erasure of their culture and religion, Indo-Trinidadians have worked to emphasize their “Indianness” and form a united community despite religious differences among Indians themselves. They identify as Trinidadians but highlight their hyphenated identities as a reminder of their ancestry and the history of indentured labor. This concern is a motivating factor in the creation of Hindu schools and organizations, the many temples that populate the Trinidadian landscape, and the fight for increased visibility of both “Indian” culture and Hinduism.
Fig. 2: The Temple in the Sea. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
To increase the visibility of their community and culture, Indo-Trinidadians have engaged in what N. Jayaram refers to as “cultural contestations to challenge the African hegemony” (Jayaram, 130). These include the establishment of a national holiday for Indian Arrival Day and the refusal to accept the highest of national awards because they argued that its name, The Trinity Cross, referred specifically to Christianity. While less explicit than the narratives concerning those two specific cases, I would argue that the popularity of jhandi flags is yet another way Indo-Trinidadians have fought against the dominance of Afro-Caribbean culture and Christianity.
Although jhandi-like flags can be spotted near temples in North India, where the majority of Indo-Trinidadians came from, the commonness of jhandis, especially its placement near homes, is unique to the Caribbean. As my informant Raj notes, during indentureship, jhandi flags were used as a type of the murti, statues that embody various forms of the Divine, because laborers had few murtis of their own. The practice of using the flag as a representation of the Divine, often the form of Hanuman, is cited by both Raj and Indrani Rampersad, a pandita or female priest, as connected to an incident in the sacred text of the Mahabharata where Hanuman states that he will be on the battlefield in the form of the flag (Rampersad, 57). Perhaps the notion of flags was appealing to indentured laborers, then, because they viewed their new homes in the Caribbean as a type of battlefield in which they were fighting against Christianity and Afro-Caribbean culture.
Fig. 3: A jhandi flag depicting Hanuman outside the Dattatreya Yoga Center, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
Traditionally jhandis are placed in the yard of an individual during their home pujas. Home pujas are done on a yearly basis or for special occasions, such as a birthday celebration or graduation. In addition to the ingredients needed for the puja, which includes flowers and fruits, the devotee also obtains bamboo and the flags which can be bought at the local puja store. The cotton flags are usually plain in color but may also come with a picture of the deity to be placed on the flag itself. The various colors of the flags represent particular deities. A red flag, for example, is associated with either Hanuman or Durga. Finding the right bamboo, which must be freshly cut, is a bit trickier. The “right bamboo” should be straight and clean, and should have at least five joints or knots (62). Before cutting the bamboo, the devotee says a prayer in which they ask for permission to take the plant. Once the bamboo is brought to the site of worship, the pundit, a male priest, will sprinkle water on the bottom of the bamboo to purify it and adorn it with sindoor, a sacred red powder used in rituals and by married women, and chandan, sandalwood powder. The bamboo is then inserted onto the flag by the devotee. After the jhandi is readied, the devotees and the pundit go outside where a hole for the jhandi has been prepared. At the site, the pundit blesses the hole with milk, coins, and flowers before implanting the jhandi (63). While placing the jhandi into the ground, all the devotees must touch the bamboo and, as it is inserted into the hole, they all shout “Jai (name of the deity)” which proclaims the victory of the deity. Generally after the jhandi is place into the ground, it is not removed. There is some disagreement, however, about whether it should be removed or not once it is worn or damaged. While some have argued that removing the flag would be to desecrate it, Raj found the practice to be one of “over reverence.” He argued that the flag should be removed and “immersed back in the elements when it is no longer nice,” meaning torn or damaged.
Fig. 4: Jhandi flags in front of a home, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
Rampersad identifies the jhandi as an “axis mundi that symbolizes Mount Meru, the mythical center of the Earth” (64). She writes that the jhandi “locates the home as the center of everything. In one prayer for installing it as the main door of a new home, the performer of the ritual prayers says: ‘Here, in this space on Mother Earth, I construct this building which is like the center of the globe and which is the spring of prosperity and river of wealth.’” In addition to its religious and spiritual significance, though, jhandi flags are a source of pride for Indo-Caribbeans, a proclamation of their faith for all to see. Making sure it is seen by those who may pass by the home is especially important. Jewan, a man in his forties, states forcefully: “Why do we put up flags? You know how when people claim a land, they put up a flag, signaling it’s theirs? That’s what we do when we put up a flag! We let them know we are here.” Angie, an older woman, looks disgustedly at a couple who has decided to place their jhandis in the back of their house. “It’s as if they are ashamed,” Angie remarked, “Put it in the front! Where everyone can see!” Jhandi flags, then, are also about letting the general public know that a Hindu lives in that home. Driving down a road in Trinidad and seeing the flags placed proudly in front many homes is a constant reminder of the presence of Indo-Trinidadian Hindus.
Fig. 5: A picture of Ganga Ma on a jhandi flag near a home, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
The use of jhandis as a cultural weapon against the dominance of Christianity on the island can be clearly seen with the Petrotrin jhandi incident described by Selwyn Ryan in his aptly named book, The Jhandi and the Cross. In 1998, a jhandi had been placed by Indo-Trinidadians workers at the head office of Petrotrin, the state own oil company, as part of their Diwali celebrations. After Diwali, controversy arose as to whether the jhandi should be taken down or left alone. While some workers argued that the flag was inappropriate in a secular workplace, others claimed that it would be blasphemous to remove it (Ryan, xi). The leader of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, a prominent Hindu organization, argued that “once hoisted, the flag is never broken or pulled down” but other religious leaders asserted that the flag could be removed if appropriate prayers were said and it was replanted on temple grounds or thrown into the ocean (xi-xii). Disagreements over if and how jhandis could be removed, though, were only part of the issue. For the Maha Saba and its supporters, the root of the issue was political. Ryan includes the following newspaper excerpt from a Maha Saba spokesperson: This simple flag of religious triumph of goodness over evil has sparked controversy. The jhandi, to most Hindus, is a powerful symbol, and is often placed in the front of the Hindu home. Across Trinidad, jhandis are to be found in every village and every street. It is a symbol that every Hindu in Trinidad can identify with, despite what organization they belong to. An affront to the jhandi at Petrotrin will be perceived as disrespect for all Hindus…the flag appears to symbolize more than its religious connotation; instead, it brings home the change in paradigm; this visible reminder that the corridors of power are no longer dominated by Afro-Christians has shaken the foundations of many individuals. (xii)
Here the Maha Saba makes the bold claim that people are not offended because there is a religious object in a secular space, but because that object happens to be connected to Hinduism rather than Christianity. Ryan notes that the supporters of the Maha Saba’s position pointed to the Anglican Church, a Christian cemetery, and other Christian icons on Petrotrin’s grounds as evidence of this hypocrisy. If the jhandi had to be taken down, these other Christian symbols must also be removed. Supporters claimed that while Muslims and Hindus accepted these icons, Afro-Christians had rejected the jhandi because it forced them to acknowledge Hinduism. This statement simultaneous chastises opponents of the jhandi for being contradictory while at the same time boasting about the greater tolerance of Indo-Trinidadians. Ultimately, Petrotrin decided to leave the jhandi because they argued that it was bio-degradable and would disappear in time (xiii). The controversy over the Petrotrin case soon died down, but over the years the appropriateness of the jhandi in secular spaces like schools would continue to make headlines. Each time the argument in favor of the jhandi would note its importance for representing the Indo-Trinidadian community and the need for true religious pluralism.
The jhandi as a symbol for Indo-Caribbeans has become so commonplace, its presence can also be seen in Indo-Caribbean communities in the United States where it has also made headlines. November last year, a man was caught burning forty jandhi flags in front of a home in Queens, New York. Queens is home to a large number of Indo-Caribbeans and it is not usual to see jhandis outside of homes, especially in the area known as “Little Guyana.” The incident was cited as a hate crime, a result of the growing prejudice Indians, regardless of their faith, have faced in the U.S. since the September 11th attacks (Reporter, “U.S. Hindus Report Jhandi-Burning in NY”). In the U.S. too, then, the continued use of jhandis is more than just religiously important. Like their early years in Trinidad, Indo-Caribbeans represent a minority group in the U.S. and struggle to maintain their culture while at the same time adjusting to their homes. Jhandis are a tangible object representing not just their faith but their Caribbean heritage. To see a jhandi in front of a home in the U.S. is to know that person is Hindu and likely Indo-Caribbean. The same symbol which has been used in the Caribbean for religious and political reasons now acts as an identity marker for the Indo-Caribbean community in their double diaspora. Like Hanuman taking the form of the flag so that he can be taken onto the battlefield, Indo-Caribbeans hold their jhandis proudly and defiantly, ready to combat those who seek to deny their culture and history and to claim their new homes. We are here, they say, and we are staying.
Fig. 6: The remnants of jhandi flags washed up by the sea near the Temple in the Sea. Photo: Prea Persaud.
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- [i] The term “jhandi” refers to the combination of the flag and the bamboo, but Indo-Caribbeans will also say “jhandi flags” which emphasizes the importance of the flag. Indo-Guyanese will also use the term “jhandi” to refer to religious prayers held at a person’s home.
- [ii] The controversy over the Trinity Cross, which was the highest of the national awards in Trinidad, was the accusation that it was discriminatory against non-Christians because it used the symbol of the Christian cross. Although the name did not change, a more secular award replaced it as the highest of national awards. The Indian Arrival Day controversy stems from two factors: (1) the reason for the holiday and (2) the name of the holiday. Indo-Caribbeans argued that the day was needed to the recognize the history indentured labor but opponents claimed that making the day a national holiday would lead to other groups requesting their own day. When the holiday was declared in 1995 it was simply called “Arrival Day” which led Indo-Caribbean leaders, including Basdeo Pandey who would become the first Indian Prime Minister of Trinidad, to declare that the absence of the word “Indian” from the title demonstrated that the government was “ashamed” and “repulsed” by the term. When Pandey came into power that same year, he immediately changed the name from “Arrival Day” to “Indian Arrival Day.”