Indian Arrival Day, celebrated on 30th May, commemorates the arrival of the first Indian Indentured labourers from India to Trinidad, in May 1845, on the ship Fatel Razack. The Fatel Razack brought not only a new labour force to assist in the economic development of Trinidad, but also a new people with a new culture.
While this momentous event has been celebrated among the East Indian community in Trinidad and Tobago for many years, it was not until 1994 that it was made an official public holiday. It was called Arrival Day. In 1995, it was re-named Indian Arrival Day. On 30th May each year, Indian Arrival Day commemorates this momentous event by staging a re-enactment of the arrival of the Fatel Razack at various beaches throughout Trinidad and Tobago. There is also music and dance, and outstanding members of the community are honoured for their contributions to society.
Indian Immigration to Trinidad spanned the period 1845-1917. During this period over 140,000 Indians were transported to the island. The journey was long and arduous and living conditions were deplorable. After disembarking at Nelson Island, the arrivals were fed and rested for a couple weeks and then sent to the various estates that had requested them previously.
The indentured labourers who came to Trinidad brought with them their own East Indian cuisine, complete with traditional seasonings and ways of cooking. Most important of their spices were the curries. In Trinidad and Tobago most Hindi words in common use today relate to the kitchen and food. Over time foods such as roti, doubles, saheena, katchowrie, barah, anchar and pholourie have become household names and are consumed by a wide cross-section of the society. Today, East Indian dishes are part of the national cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago.
The East Indians brought to Trinidad a wide range of festivals and religious observances. For East Indians - both Hindus and Muslims - these celebrations were important. They allowed the immigrants to hold on to the values and principles which had sustained them for centuries. They also served to make the harsh daily life more bearable. Events such as Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Phagwa and Hoosay have, over the years, become part of the cultural fabric of Trinidad and Tobago.
East Indians who came to the Caribbean initially came from various regions in India, each with its own language and customs. However, by the late 19th century there was less diversity in language as the majority of immigrants originated from Uttar Pradesh. The inhabitants of this region spoke Bhojpuri, a Hindi dialect, which became the shared and unifying language for East Indians in Trinidad.
The indentured labourers brought not only their religion, food and clothing, but also the names of the places from which they came. They gave to the places they settled in Trinidad, the place names with which they were familiar. Hence the reason for village names such as Fyzabad, Barrackpore, Chandernagore, and many others.
One ancient practice which has recently become a western phenomenon is the Mehndi (or Henna) which is the ancient art of body tattooing. Mehndi powder is made out of dried leaves from a shrub. Traditionally, mehndi is used to decorate the hands and feet of a new bride.
Family and community were very important to the immigrants. They brought the panchayat system which was a way of dealing with with inter-communal conflicts and family problems. They also continued their naming convention of family members.
Music was and still is, a fundamental part of the various Indian festivals. Consequently, the Indians brought their musical instruments with them when they migrated to Trinidad. A number of these musical instruments were previously unknown in the West Indies. These include the tassa, tabla, dholak, majeera, bansoori, sitar and harmonium.
The most popular musical instruments were the drums, of which there were several types. There was the dholak, which provided the rhythm for most of the folk songs. It is a cylindrical, double-headed drum which is beaten on both sides. The larger side provides the bass and the smaller side the tenor. There was also the tassa drum which is made of clay covered with goat's skin. It is beaten with a pair of sticks. Usually several tassa drums are played together by a group of people. The tassa drums are used at weddings, Gathka dancing and Hosay celebrations.
The tabla, which was introduced into India by the Muslims of Persia was another type of drum which was an essential accompaniment to most musical performances. It consists of a pair of drums - one large and one medium sized - which is played with both hands on one end.
The Nagara drums have a leather face and a clay base. Like the tassa, they are beaten with a pair of sticks, and are played in Ahir dancing and at Biraha singing. In addition there was the bansoori, which is a bamboo flute with seven holes, and the harmonium, which resembles an organ, and has bellows which pump wind into the reed compartment.
There are also the jhal, majeera and sitar. The former consists of a pair of cymbals held in the hand and struck against each other. The majeera, which forms part of the rhythm section of an Indian orchestra, is made up of two brass cups held together by a string. These cups are struck against each other. The sitar is an adaptation of the vina, with the sound board nesting on a gourd similar to a pumpkin. The face of the sitar is made of hand-worked teak over which there are seven upper strings and eleven to twelve lower strings which vibrate in resonance to the notes plucked on the upper principal strings.
In addition to the musical instruments they brought with them, the Indians fashioned a new instrument - the Dhantal - from their environment on the sugar estates. The dhantal was a long steel rod which was adapted from the prong used to connect the yokes of the bullocks that transported the cane-filled carts on the estates. The metal horse shoe used on the estate horses and mules was used to strike the dhantal. In this way the dhantal became a new instrument for providing rhythm.
Along with the music are various types of songs such as the hori, birhas, and ghazal which are sung on different occasions. There are also the various types of dances, which range from classical Indian dance to chutney.
The East Indians introduced new fashions and clothing such as the sari, choli, kurtah, orhni, salwar kameez, garara, dupatta, gangri, pagri, and dhoti. Jewellery included the nakphul, bera, churia, and baju band, to name a few.
The Sari is an unstitched length of fabric up to 9 yds in length and 18 to 60 in width with a decorated end panel draped in a wide variety of styles. It is perhaps the item of clothing most familiar to westerners, and is part of ancient tradition culture. According to legend, when the beautiful Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, was lost to the enemy clan in a gambling duel, the Lord Krishna promised to protect her virtue. The evil victors, intent on claiming their prize, caught one end of the sheer material that covered her so demurely yet seductively. They continued to pull and unravel, but they could not reach the end. In this ancient epic virtue triumphed once more.
The Shalwar/Kameez (Salwar Kameez) is a knee-length dress worn over tight fitting trousers and dupatta. This is the second most popular dress in most parts of India and was brought to the West Indies by the Indian immigrants. The dupatta is a long veil.
The Gangri is a long, full skirt reaching down to the ankles. The Choli is a short blouse worn with the sari, and the orhni is a veil which covers the upper part of the body. The kurtah is a long loose shirt, and the dhoti is a cotton loin cloth. Both garments are worn by men. The Kurtah is also worn by women in combination with the garara.