By Arun K. Sahu*
“What are those flags?” I asked.
“They are in houses belonging to the Hindu faith.” My young colleague replied.
“Why, Hindus?” I wondered.
“That’s the practice here, Sir.” He replied.
“Is there any religious or cultural significance?” I wanted to know more.
“I don’t know much, Sir; but usually the Hindus here do puja of various gods and goddesses, and after the puja, they stump flags of different colour mounted on bamboo poles dedicated to them.
“Oh! May be to ward off evil spirits.” I murmured. I did not want to burden my younger colleague any further. These were my initial queries as soon as I started travelling within Trinidad and Tobago after taking over as the High Commissioner of India.
In the course of my subsequent interaction with people, including priests and academics, I understood that the triangular flags, locally called jhandi in Hindu households, have socio-religious significance. They are considered the auspicious and divine guardian of the houses. Each colour represents one god or goddess. For instance, the white represents the goddess Saraswati, the red Hanuman, the yellow Krishna and the pink Laxmi. Throughout the year a Hindu household conducts puja of different gods and goddesses, and after the puja, they stump a jhandi in his or her name. The jhandi usually has a picture of the god or goddess printed or stitched into it. These flags are placed in one corner of the courtyard where some households have a small family temple. Old flags are replaced by new ones, and the former floated in river or sea. The most popular flag is that of Hanuman since he represents strength, resolve and devotion.
The practice also has some mooring in their migration history. It goes back to the arrival of Indians to this land, which started in 1845 and continued till 1917. The first ship named Fath Al Razack arrived from Calcutta with 225 indentured labourers at the gulf of Paria on May 30, 1845. Subsequently, a total of 143,939 people from Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Hindi speaking region of colonial India (present-day Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar) migrated to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations. Almost 85% of them were Hindus, and about 14% were Muslims. The indentured labourers, along with the African slaves freed in 1838 after the end of slavery, became an integral part of this land and built this nation that became independent of the British empire in 1962.
During their travel from India, the indentured Indians, in their jahaji bundle or carry bag, brought things close to their identity and day to day use. These articles included Ramayana of Tulsidas, plants like tulsi, cooking utensils like tawa, belna, chimta, karahi etc. They also continued to practice some of the religious ceremonies. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that the custom of jhandi has remnants of Hindu practices in northern India in the nineteenth century. As such, the use of triangular flags in temples and religious places in India is well-known. For instance, the mere sight of the patitapaban bana in Puri Jagannath temple is considered auspicious by millions of devotees. The flags on the chariots of various warriors have also been well documented in the epic Mahabharat.
The flag is a symbol of human resolve or sankalp to adhere to a righteous path in human life, and the jhandi embodies that spirit. During the days of their struggle in the nineteenth century, the jhandi identification was also solacing for travellers of Indian descent that they can ask for shelter and food during their long journey on foot in case they need to. The use of bamboo could be explained by the fact that they are straight, tall and durable, and readily available in the Caribbean climate. The jhandi ritual uses three main elements, namely, the sindoor or vermillion, the chandan or sandal paste and haldi or turmeric. I am told vermillion symbolises loyalty to the god or goddess, sandal paste the ability to listen to good things, and turmeric symbolises humility.
In today’s Trinidad and Tobago, out of the total population of 1.3 million, 43% belong to the people of Indian descent, out of which 18% are practising Hindus. Temples of different sizes exist inside private courtyards and in public places. Ritual is an integral part of many Hindu households, and it appears, in the last 175 years, the jhandi has continuously reminded them of the essence of the Hindu way of life.
*The writer is High Commissioner of India, Trinidad & Tobago
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.