Hindus pray and make offerings to the statue of Virgin Mary in a church in Siparia in Trinidad and Tobago. (Kumar Mahabir photo)

On Good Friday in a Roman Catholic Church in Siparia in Trinidad and Tobago, Catholics are forced to give way to Hindus who take offerings to the saint Sipari Mai, either in supplication or as a form of thanksgiving.

According to the 2011 population census report, Roman Catholics constitute the largest religious group (22%) in the multiethnic society. Hindus rank the second largest (18%) in a population of 1.3 million people.

Anthropologist Steven Vertovec observes that on Good Friday, “Each [Hindu] person individually files past the murti (statue) to charawe (offer) gifts (with the accompanying gesture to their forehead) and to place a tika or sindhur (mark) on the forehead of the Mai.”

Local university researcher Dabrielle Nurse notes negatively that Hindus “have converted the veneration of La Divina Pastora into an almost Indian cult,” and Sister Marie Therese writes in exasperation that “on Good Friday, Hindus literally take over Siparia.”

In the past, worship of the saint was done inside the church, but the number of worshippers increased every year. To prevent “the uproar,” the statue was taken outside the church.

During indentureship, Hindus sacrificed cocks, goats and pigs in the churchyard. The practice was discouraged by Catholic officials. In 1880, a parish priest remarked, “They truly give the Blessed Virgin an idolatrous worship.” 

Today, women in orhanis (veils) make offerings of flowers, raw rice, money, olive oil and candles. Gold and silver jewelry in the form of chains, earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces are draped over the statue and on her outstretched arms.

In 1891, a colonial official noted that the gifts of the indentured Indian workers were so abundant that the image of the Divine Shepherdess “may be seen covered with watches, gold chains, silver bangles and bracelets of all kinds.”

The practice of gift-giving continued, and around 1960 two American anthropologists observed that the venerated saint received “items of considerable value.”

Edmie Friday, another local university researcher, found Hindus to be “very generous, and it is for this reason that the number of beggars [in the courtyard] has increased over the years.”

Hundreds of beggars flock to the site seeking alms from women with bags and purses. Some of them cry, “Mai, me! Mai me!”

In the past, an eternal lamp burned with olive oil in the church and Hindus brought more oil to keep it burning. The oil burned in the eternal lamps was constantly refilled since it was used by Hindus and Catholics to anoint any part of the body that was afflicted with pain or abnormality.

The Hindu practice began as early as 1871 when the parish priest of La Divina Pastora recorded in his diary that “no one goes away without having thrown on their heads the oil which burns before the statue.”

The tradition continues today with Hindus bringing oil, pouring most of the bottle into a drum while retaining some for themselves.

Another Hindu ritual which is performed on the church grounds on Good Friday is the first cutting of the hair of a child, locks of which are placed at the feet of the statue.

In the Hindu tradition, the first hair-cutting is done during chatti or barahi (postpartum ceremony), or during the Shivratri festival in February or March.

Parents use the services of the barbers at hand to cut their children’s hair as a sign of dedication and offering.

The practice began as early as 1871 when the parish priest of La Divina Pastora recorded in his diary that he found “many coolies wanted to cut their long hair and offer it to the Virgin, [and] I stopped them.”  

As part of the “promise” to bear a child, the hitherto fruitless couple would have to “dance the baby.”

This ritual entails giving the baby to one of the transvestite Harischandra performers in the courtyard. The flamboyant and colorfully dressed dancer would sing and dance with the baby in his arms around an orhani (veil) to the accompaniment of Indian music.

For the past decade, there has been the appearance of a poojari (head priest) of the Kali-Mai Hindu sect in the church grounds. He collects donations from worshippers for the purpose of performing ceremonial worship for the protection of his village from sickness and natural disasters.

The figure of this poojari, dark-skinned and dressed in white, jharying (stroking) with knife and neem branch those who seek his blessings, substantiates the conception that Hindus perceive this Divine Shepherdess to be Mother Kali.

Stalls on the roadway are stacked with Indian sweetmeats and delicacies. Framed pictures of Hindu deities are sold alongside those of Christian saints, and potters peddle their kalsas (jars), jugs and goblets.

Members of the Hare Krishna Hindu sect peddle incense, images and japa beads (rosaries) in their trademark traditional dress on the church compound and street.

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