By Lavina Melwani
A mound of salt between them, the new bride, resplendent in her finery, shyly picks up a handful in her palms and passes it to the bridegroom, who hands it back to her. Thrice the salt exchange takes place, after which the bride touches his feet. She repeats the ceremony with all her new in-laws, bowing to the elders and hugging the others, including the family cook, to ensure good relations in her new life.
This ancient custom, datar, has been handed down through generations of Sindhi Hindu families and has become a part of their Vedic wedding rituals. One would expect to see it in Sindh, Pakistan, India–even in New York City–but it was a bit startling to observe it on the holiday resort island of Barbados, a place populated by tourists, where rum is the drink of the day and flying fish is the national dish.
Although the bridegroom was born in Sri Lanka and the bride in Spain, they had met in Miami. At heart, both wanted nothing less than a real Indian wedding. They considered traveling to India, but decided to wed in Barbados, which is now their home.
The preparations started a full year in advance. Since there are so few Indian images in Barbados, the bridegroom’s mother took a trip to Mumbai and Delhi to purchase the paraphernalia, including huge cutouts of Radha-Krishna and the Taj Mahal, to provide a backdrop for the boisterous sangeet and mehndi party. With no Indian grocery stores or restaurants, everything Indian in Barbados, from dals to DJs, is brought in from Miami or New York.
For wedding services, even the priest is imported–a practice common to most of these islands, including St. Martins, St. Thomas and Jamaica. Priests are generally invited from New York, since they are more familiar with Sindhi traditions. This season, however, all the New York priests were booked solid with weddings in the city, so the Sabnanis hired a priest from Trinidad, who performed the Vedic rites beautifully.
Barbados has a tightly-knit community of just 80 Sindhi families, and every one of them has a home shrine. The Sabnanis’ shrine is especially handsome, with beautiful idols and pictures, incense, bells and a light which burns constantly, be it day or night. It is this spiritual spark which is remarkable about the community here. Indeed, for many years the Sindhis kept Hinduism alive solely through their private shrines at home, which paid tribute to every Hindu deity, to the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib, too. A Hindu temple for the community was a dream for a long time, but it was only a few years back that a Sindhi businessman and philanthropist donated the building which has become Barbados’ first and only Hindu temple.
Many Sindhi families face a universal dilemma. As older generations pass on, the younger ones discover they do not know the rituals of their faith. Nor do many Hindu priests know the regional customs. Even some of the elder statesmen of the community have lived on the island so long that they are uncertain of the original rites. Many of the younger women voiced this concern to me, hoping that a book on Sindhi customs for the passings of life might be published to give them guidelines on the appropriate behavior.
But Pundit Jeevan Maharaj of Trinidad believes the future looks bright for Hinduism in the islands of the Caribbean. A son of the Dharmacharya of Trinidad and Tobago, Maharaj grew up in Guyana. He went to college, pursued a legal career and now travels through the islands, even to Canada and America, conducting Ramayana, Purana and Bhagwat yajnas, as well as weddings. His message to the isolated islanders is, “People are getting ahead in life, but they are not getting along. They are getting money, but losing their children; getting name and fame, but losing their culture. You can’t keep telling children about an India of thousands of years ago while they are watching American television of the present in the Caribbean. So you can’t blame them for a sense of confusion and loss. We have to create a fine balance. Many of us are so busy trying to get our children all the things we didn’t have, that we forget to pass on to them the things we did have.”
The earliest Sindhi settlers came from Rajasthan and Bombay 50 years ago, before Independence. In fact, a few hardy souls were there early in 1945. Some of the first families who came here were the Thanis, Motwanis and Kripalani, and these are still well-known names on the island. Many of these entrepreneurs started their businesses in the old days by going into the countryside on bicycles and selling their goods from suitcases.
Today, the Indian community comprises people from many regions, but the primary group is still the Sindhis. According to Prakash Mahtani, a community leader, 95 percent of the members of the Hindu Association of Barbados are Sindhis. A majority of Hindus in Barbados are followers of Maharaj Charansinghji of Beas (a district of Amritsar in the Punjab), Sri Satya Sai Baba or Sadhu Vaswani. It is a community of many vegetarians and teetotalers. In fact, when the Sabnanis planned their son’s wedding, this all-important point was well considered. They had to make sure the cake and refreshments would not offend anyone.
Barbados is part of the Lesser Antilles, bounded by the Caribbean Sea on the one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Just 21 miles long by 14 miles wide, it is so flat that Christopher Columbus didn’t even spot it when he discovered the neighboring islands. Apart from the sun, sand and sugar cane, Barbados’ most winning resource is its people–a warm, friendly lot who go out of their way to help newcomers.
With the opening of a giant new software solutions company, Barbados is fast becoming the quintessential destination for Indian computer programmers. Srinivasan Vishy is the president of PRT Group Inc., which is headquartered in New York and services Fortune 500 companies. The company has launched its new software solutions company, TTSL, in Barbados, where it employs several hundred people. The company is actively recruiting computer programmers from India to work and live here. If they have their way, thousands will come. US Visa quotas for such engineers are 30,000 per year, while 300,000 jobs go unfilled. TTSL hopes to fill the market need by establishing a programming base offshore. They offer unparalled personal attention to employees, including giving them the apartment of their dreams.
Barbados is a special place, where your spirits are lifted by the perfect play of sun, sky and sand and the happy smiles of Barbadian schoolchildren walking hand in hand. Long after you return home, as I did to New York in August, the memories stay with you, turning the coldest days of winter into summer once again.