Hindus of Guyana

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Hindus of Guyana

LOCATION: Guyana (Atlantic coast area)
POPULATION: About 302,000
LANGUAGE: English; Hindu; Urdu
RELIGION: Hinduism


When slavery was abolished in Guyana in the early 19th century, the freed African slaves abandoned the sugar plantations and became peasants or town dwellers. So, the plantation owners turned to India to recruit their workers. Over the next 80 years, beginning in about 1838, thousands of Asian Indians from all parts of the Indian subcontinent crossed the kalapani, the Black Waters, as indentured laborers. Many of them were lower-caste Indians, sometimes existing in a state of virtual slavery in their own country, who were glad to flee their landlords and creditors for the prospect of a new beginning in a new land. But, the journey was a dangerous one. Out of 324 persons who embarked on a ship at Calcutta in 1858, as many as 120 died as a result of the conditions on board. Life was not much better when they arrived, for in the early years, they were seen as the "new slaves" and were treated as such until new regulations were brought in to improve their treatment by the owners. By 1917, when immigration ended, a total of 239,000 Asian Indians had left their homes to travel to Guyana. Many of them stayed, being offered land close to the plantations in exchange for giving up their rights to return to India. The former Black African slaves resented the fact that the "dal coolies" appeared to be favored over them by the plantation owners, and this became the basis for a racial resentment between the two groups that continues today.

Politics in Guyana have always been defined along racial lines. During the 1950s and 1960s, the history of the colony was stormy. The first elected government was formed by the People's Progressive Party, representing the Hindu community, and it was led by Cheddi Jagan who is credited as spearheading the movement in the Caribbean towards independence. As a son of an Indian sugar plantation worker, Jagan represented the aspirations of the Hindu population in Guyana. His policies, however, appeared to be so pro-communist that the British government suspended the constitution and even sent troops to Guyana. The party was again elected into power in 1963, but rioting broke out between the Asian Indians and the Black Africans, which led to bloodshed. The British decided to introduce proportional representation and the African-dominated People's National Congress (PNC), itself a socialist party, swept into power on a coalition ticket. Its leader, Forbes Burnham, declared the country an independent republic in 1970. For the next two decades, Guyana became virtually a one-party state, and it was not until 1992 that the PNC reign ended and Cheddi Jagan's party took office once more.

During his presidential tenure, Cheddi Jagan focused on improving the country's infrastructure and educational system. On 15 February 1997, Jagan suffered a heart attack and was taken to Washington, D.C., where he underwent heart surgery. Cheddi Jagan died on 6 March 1997. After his death, his wife Janet Jagan was elected president of Guyana, but two years later, arguing health reasons, she stepped down. That same year, the former minister of Finance, Bharran Jagdeo, was appointed president and was reelected in 2001 and 2006.

Guyana's government has been attempting to improve the economy, reduce violent crime rates, and to create the necessary dialogue among different segments of the society with the intention of softening the tension within different ethnic groups that, during the last decades, has severely affected the political agenda.


Guyana is a multicultural and multiracial group. The largest ethnic group is formed by Indian descendants, also known as Indo-Guyanese, and according to the 2002 population census 43.5% of Guyanese belong to this category. Under a religious perspective, Hindus make up almost 40% (or about 302,000 people) of Guyana's 756,000 people of various races, including Africans, Portuguese, Chinese, and Amerindians. The second biggest ethnic group is formed by people of African heritage or Afro-Guyanese, who accounted for 30.2%. The third in number are those of mixed heritage representing 16.7% of the population. This ethnic group is composed by Amerindians such as Arawak, Wai Wai, Carib, Akawaio, Wapixana, Macushi, and Warao. The smallest groups are European, including Portuguese who make up 1,500 of the population and the Chinese (0.19% or 1,400 persons).

Guyana is divided between the coast, where most of the population is concentrated, and the interior. The coastal dwellers are heterogeneous and the majority of these inhabitants descended from the laborers brought in to work the sugarcane plantations. The Hindus live on a narrow coastal strip along the Atlantic coast, only 16 km (10 mi) across at its widest point, on land that has been reclaimed from the sea by a series of canals and some 225 km (140 mi) of dikes. Although many live in the capital, Georgetown, and other urban areas, a large number of Hindu families still live in the farming villages they created in the early days when they were first given land by the plantation owners.


Although the official and principal language of Guyana is English, Hindu and Urdu are also heard among the older Asian Indians.


Much of Guyanan Hindus' folklore springs from their religious and racial background. The majority of Hindus came from the Gangetic Plain, which produced the great religious heroes of India, such as Rama, Krishna, and Mahavira. It was this area that was the scene of the great Asian Indian epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.


All the major Hindu festivals are celebrated by Guyanan Hindus throughout the year. At the end of October is the religious festival of lights, Divali, which celebrates the return of Lord Rama after 14 years in exile. There are also Bhagwats, remarkable socioreligious activities centered on the reading of a sacred text by the Brahmins, usually the Shrima Bhaga Vata Purama. These events span 7, 9, or 14 days and involve a variety of rites and massive communal meals with hundreds of participants. The Hindus are often joined by Christians and Muslims who travel from all over the country to take part.

Religious activities also include Pujas, which mark special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, and a pundit is hired to perform the necessary Sanskrit rites over a weekend. No fish or meat must be eaten in the house before a religious function takes place. Even the refrigerator must be emptied for the occasion.


A great part of Guyanan Hindus' recreational activity reflects their tolerant acceptance of other religions and is based upon the festivities that accompany Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays, such as Christmas, the end of Ramadan, and (in early March) Phagwah, the Hindu New Year, a joyous celebration that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and is noted for the energetic throwing of perfume and water. Easter Monday is also a traditional day for flying kites. Republic Day, on February 23, is the day the president reports to the nation and is a day for much street marching.

Once a year, most Hindus try to have a grand puja, or Ramayana Yagna, an event where the entire community is invited to participate. Ramayana is an ancient epic tale consisting in more than 24,000 verses that narrate the adventure of Rama, whose wife Sita is abducted by the demon. The characters of Rama and Sita among others are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India and the Hindus in general.


Baptism is common among the Hindus, who attend Christian churches while maintaining their participation in their own religious rituals. Many of the names that they confer on their children reflect the epic heroes of their culture, such as Rama, Krishna, etc.


As of 2008, about 84% of the East Indian immigrants were Hindus. Around 30% of them belonged to agricultural castes, 31% were laborers, and 14% were Brahmins, the highest priest-ly caste among the Hindus. The familiar Hindu caste system is a highly localized phenomenon in the villages of India. There-fore, when low-caste Hindus and twice-born Brahmins were thrown together on board ships to become jahagis (shipmates) on the sailing boats from India to Guyana in the 19th century, that system soon became irrelevant. In this sense, it is possible to assess that Hinduism in Guyana was redefined.

Brahmins played an important role in reforming and, at the same time, maintaining the strength of the religion they served. Brahmins administered spiritual rites to all Hindus and were the roadblock that could contain the Christian missionaries' attempts of converting the East Indians into Catholics during the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, Hindu conversions to Christianity slowed down because the status of Hinduism improved and the discrimination against Hindus diminished.

Today, there is more or less only one common caste for all Hindus in Guyana, although Brahmins do retain their special religious role in interpreting the sacred knowledge of the rituals and Sanskrit texts.

Anyone visiting a friend or acquaintance at their home address is expected to call upon everyone else that they know within that neighborhood. Not to do so is considered extremely rude. Open hospitality is a great feature of Hindu life in Guyana, and no visit can be completed without the offer of a meal or refreshment.


Hindu homes are provided with a small place to pray, which is usually located at the front of the home. It is common among Hindus to dedicate time for singing, meditation, and—if their daily activities allow it—to go to the temple.

Standards of health care declined after Guyanan independence, when many doctors and trained medical personnel emigrated. Years of economic austerity programs led to reduced supplies of medicine and equipment. Food shortages led to widespread malnutrition, particularly during the 1980s.

Some 170,000 Guyanans, out of a population of 800,000, live in Georgetown, the capital. Many of the houses in the center of the city are made of wood. Many Guyanan Hindus live in small villages and towns along the coast. The houses are built of wood with tin roofs and are constructed on stilts 2.5 m to 3 m (8–10 ft) off the ground to avoid flooding from the sea.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the government under Burnham was determined to undermine the rural opposition of the Asian Indian small farmers and so developed a series of farming cooperative policies. As a result, rice production was cut by half, after the farmers lost their subsidies. Guyana is one of the poorest countries in the world and relies heavily on its self-sufficiency in food. Resulting food shortages led to increased malnutrition and the return of diseases that were formerly under control, such as beriberi and malaria. The economy was also badly hit by the depressed world demand for bauxite and sugar. This has led to a near breakdown in essential public services, such as electricity.


Ethnic identity continues to be important within daily life. The mother- and grandmother-dominated family among Afro-Guyanese differs from the father-oriented Asian Indian family. The extended family is still typical among Hindus, although the European nuclear pattern is becoming popular. Upon marriage, the son is expected to take his bride and live for some time with his parents. This is because it is the duty of the parents to guide the children through the early days of marriage. Then, by the sixth or seventh year the son will have set up his own household with his wife and children.

Because the caste system has virtually disappeared in Guyana, few fathers of high status would pass up the opportunity for their child to marry into a wealthy, established family because of considerations of caste. The arranged marriage is also not as widespread as it once was, and in urban areas it is almost non-existent.


A skirt and blouse is the popular form of clothing for women, but the sari is being increasingly worn by Hindu women. For Hindu men it is the kurta (shirt) or the dhoti (one-piece trousers).


Asian Indian food is very popular throughout Guyana. Curry and dal have become part of everyday life for the whole population. Dal is often flavored by the addition of spices cooked in oil. Hindus in the country serve the food on lotus or banana leaves.

Vegetables, such as pumpkin and eggplant, make up the main part of the diet, although fish is often eaten. Fish are often caught in the ditches and dikes by women using seine nets.


Children receive free, compulsory education. The government assumed full control of education in 1976 and took over Church-run and private primary schools. Because of economic decline, physical facilities have deteriorated in schools, books and supplies are limited, and there are few qualified teachers. During the time of the People's National Congress (PNC) government, education became highly politicized, and teachers were expected to teach loyalty to both the PNC and to socialist objectives.

The principal university is the University of Georgetown at Turkeyeen, in the eastern part of the capital, but many Hindus seek training and higher education abroad.


Post-independent Guyana still bears the imprint of its colonial heritage, and many people still look towards European values. But Hindus keep a strong link with their ancient roots and for many, the cinema provides that link, showing the great epics, such as the story of Lord Rama's long 14-year exile. For them it bears many echoes of their own past, reflecting their exile from India.

Young Hindus, too, are rediscovering their culture, through the religious fables as well as through the traditional music played at weddings and festivals.

One of the best known Hindu writers is Dr. David Dabydeen, whose works cover his experiences both in Guyana and Britain. His latest novel is The Counting House. Another popular author is Rooplall Monar.


The domestic economy of Guyana reflects the ethnic divisions of the country. Hindu families control most small businesses, such as small farms and shops. In fact, the Hindus are the mainstay of the plantation agriculture of rice and sugar. Meanwhile, the Africans dominate the government sector and security forces. An increasing number of Hindus are entering the legal and medical professions.

Wages for most people, however, are low, and many Hindus depend on overseas remittances from relatives abroad to survive. Most people work at more than one job. Those with farms will often take on part-time unskilled and semiskilled jobs between sowing and harvest times.

Many Hindus, including skilled and professional people, emigrated annually in large numbers to flee what they felt to be political persecution under the previous African-dominated government. They have settled in North America, Canada, Britain, and the Caribbean Islands. This emigration has been a great drain on Guyana's human resources. At the same time, others have sought part time work in western Suriname.


Hindus share the Guyanese passion for cricket—a passion that is prevalent throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. The game is one of the few unifying factors in the country, overcoming racial divisions. It has been said, however, that cricket in Guyana is totally unlike the game as it is played in England. In Guyana it has more of the passionate atmosphere of a bullfight in Spain, galvanizing the people's national self-esteem. The sport plays a special role in the historical, social, and cultural development of the country. By playing host in Georgetown to International Test Cricket Matches against other countries within the British Commonwealth, the people of Guyana have the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities on the international scene, and to make a symbolic gesture against their oppressive colonial legacy. The Hindus did not come into the game at Test Match level until the 1950s. There are a number of great Hindu players, however, who have been selected for the West Indies team, including Rohan Kanhai and Neville Kalicharan.

In the villages outside Georgetown, street cricket is played with a sponge ball, and the pitch is a coconut mat laid out on the ground. Even during the rainy seasons, young players can be seen standing thigh-deep in water around a mat laid on the only piece of high, dry ground in a field.


Popular culture is as mixed as the various ethnic groups who live in Guyana. Georgetown offers a wide mix of museums and art galleries, and for the young people there are discos. A favorite kind of music among both Hindu and Afro-Guyanese is something called chutney, a hot, spicy mixture of traditional Hindu music and rock music.

The cinema still plays a large part in the lives of older people, and the favorite films among Hindus are those that are imported from India, depicting the great epics such as the story of Lord Rama.

The young are also turning more and more to the traditional Asian Indian songs and dances in their search for their artistic roots.


Many of the Guyanan Hindu folk arts and crafts are entwined with the Hindu fables and festivals.


Race has been a divisive issue in Guyana, with the Hindus accusing the Africans of racism and repression during the 28 years of rule by the People's National Congress party, during which they claimed that Hindu villages were attacked and plundered by security forces. The Africans dominate the Guyana Defense Force and the police. Street crime and violence are particularly notorious in Georgetown. Community police have now been introduced by the government into the city to try to retake control of the streets.

The new government has also announced its intention of introducing structural changes "with a human face" and aims to alleviate poverty through a basic-needs strategy. It also intends to increase foreign and local investment, production, and exports. Cheddi Jagan has promised a "lean and clean" government and is determined to end racial discrimination.


Indo-Guyanese women play a significant role as farmers, market vendors, teachers, nurses, civil servants, and clerks, as well as doing housework. Indian families are patriarchal and often function as corporate economic units, thus Indo-Guyanese women continue to fulfill traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker.

Until the 1930s, Indians tended to resist educating girls, but the example of other groups and the emergence of an Indian middle class, have led to a changed attitude. In 1925 only 25% of Indian children in primary schools were girls. In 1929, Subadri Lall was the first to qualify for matriculation to attend the University of London, establishing a unique record for local girls.

While many Indo-Guyanese women, especially among the working poor, have not attended school, they work to maintain their families and to send their children to school. Th us, these women contribute significantly to their household and community, planting their backyard with greens, raising chickens, goats, sheep, looking after their cows, selling milk, and buying and selling produce. Some also manage little shops in the villages and assist in their husbands' businesses, such as the tailor-shops and grocery shops. Despite their economic role, Indo-Guyanese women are not part of an established organization with leadership opportunities. It is still a social taboo for Indian women to join social organizations and carry the banners. However, a small group of middle-class Indian women in the urban areas are beginning to participate in public circles.

Even though many Indo-Guyanese women are now educated and have moved up in the social, political, and religious organizations, they are still marginalized. In 1965, a time when Indians were 50% of the population, Indo-Guyanese women comprised only 2.85% of all employees and only 13.5% of female employees on the staffs of all the government ministries. Currently, even though men dominate the economic and political spheres, a few women are senior officials in the government. Although there has been one female president, there is a paucity of women in the cabinet, the legislature, and the leadership of political parties.


Birbalsingh, Frank, ed. Indo-Caribbean Resistance. Toronto: TSAR, 1993.

Dabydeen, Dr. David, and Dr. Brinlsey Samaroo, ed. Across the Dark Waters: Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the Caribbean. London: MacMillan Caribbean, 1996.

———. India in the Caribbean. Special commemorative edition. London: Hansib, 1987.

Daly, Vere T. A Short History of the Guyanese People. London: Macmillan Education, 1975.

Frances, J., and I. Frances. Guyana: Politics and Economics and Society Beyond the Burnham Era. London: Pinter, n.d.

Peake, Linda. Gender, Ethnicity and Place: Women and Identities in Guyana. London; New York: Routledge, 1999.

Seecharan, Clem. India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination, 1890s-1920s. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1993.

—revised by C. Vergara.