ALL PHOTOS: SALIEM MOESLAN
A Festival for the Whole Village
A Hindu observance in Suriname which illustrates the gradual melding of village-oriented tribal customs with Vedic traditions
By Karan Gokoel, Suriname
Suriname, a beautiful tropical country on the northeastern coast of South America, is the continent’s smallest sovereign nation, home to a population of over half a million. Though small, it is one of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse nations—a bricolage of the many cuisines, languages and lifestyles brought by its peoples’ Indian, Chinese, Javanese and African ancestors. No one demographic group has a majority in the country, but East Indians are the largest ethnic group, forming 27 percent of the population. Most are descended from 19th-century workers from the Indian states of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. At over 22 percent, Suriname’s proportion of Hindus is the third largest of any country in the Western Hemisphere—the first being Guyana and the second being Trinidad and Tobago.
During Navaratri, a special ritual known as a gram dew puja is performed by many Hindus in the country. Their ancestors brought it with them from Mother India, having performed it long before any Hindus arrived in South America. Navaratri is a festival for praying to the nine forms of the Goddess Durga over nine nights. It is observed twice a year, around March/April and around September/October. During these nine days, Hindus clean their homes and fast, or at least follow a stricter diet, to purify their mind, body and soul, and many Hindu groups in Suriname gather to perform the gram dew puja, which focuses on the well-being of the entire community. The word gram means “village,” and dew refers to the village Deity. Aside from being a puja for the whole community, this puja differs from the regular daily prayers in that it does not address the traditional Vedic Gods. Rather, it beseeches blessings from the local Gods and Goddesses who are guardians of each particular village. This puja is an example of India’s tribal practices having long ago blended with Vedic ritual. It is said that in the past people used to offer meat and alcohol to the village Deities, and therefore this puja was traditionally held outdoors under sacred trees.
Today, Hindus in Suriname perform gram dew puja inside temples. Being predominantly vegetarian, they offer symbolic meat in the form of fruits and red-colored water, also known as dhaar. These village Deities are not represented with murtis, though in different communities many are seen as Bhairava or Kshetrapala, forms of Lord Siva who are associated with the protection of the land.
At the Shri Sita Ram mandir in Suriname, the gram dew puja takes place on a Sunday during Navaratri, as it has for much of the mandir’s 30-year existence. The outside of the mandir is decorated with bamboo flagpoles with various colored flags—red for Hanuman, Durga and Kshetrapala, yellow for Siva and Rama, and white for Surya. A couple from the community—in this case Mr. and Mrs. Maniram—begin the puja by performing all the rituals with help from the local pandit. Facing east, the couple make offerings of sandalwood, vermilion, sugar, rice, flowers and more to the various Gods of the temple. The pandit recites Sanskrit verses from the Devi Saptashati that honor the Goddess. This portion of the puja lasts about two hours and culminates with a homa. Durga is given special importance and is offered a coconut along with an array of sweets, including sweet roti, mohanbhoog, ladoo, bacove and others. This emphasis on Durga worship illustrates how the Vedic and tribal traditions have mixed. Following an arati within the temple, the group proceeds outside for the continuation of the event with the traditional village offerings of dhaar, flowers and a small portion of rum.
Several more tall flags are placed in the ground and adorned with sandalwood powder and vermillion. At this point the fruits and vegetables representing meat are offered to the earth beneath the flags, followed by the offering of sugarcane rum. This last part is done without drawing too much attention, as it is an old practice that often meets with disapproval.
Once the gram dew puja has been completed, the mandir hosts young girls from the village, sitting them down inside the temple for the community to worship them and offer them sweet rice, money and presents. This is done in acknowledgment of their innate purity and innocence. Some devotees will touch their feet and wave arati lamps before them. The whole event ends with prasadam for the village, with everyone sitting down together for a vegetarian meal of rice, roti, daal, soups and chutneys.
Nowadays the village’s population is diverse, with people of many different religions and ethnicities. Yet Hindus in Suriname continue to perform these blessings with good wishes for everyone in the village. This puja has proven itself a wonderful way for the local Hindu community to cope with problems it may face throughout the year and to come together in hopes of prosperity, good harvests and for general progress in religious and spiritual activities.
The gram dew puja is a striking example of the dynamic nature of the Hindu religion, demonstrating that while specific rituals and practices do change due to place and time, the spirit of the religion endures with the same devotion and goodwill that it has always embodied.