Name: Kunty. Father’s name: Jaya Mohatu Age: 37 Sex: Male Caste: Gowalla Height: 5’3” Mark: Scar on right jaw Village: Moreemoe Pargana: Goomo Zilla: Hazaribagh
Name: Jaufurally Father’s name: Jaumoouth Age: 23 Sex: Male Caste: Musalamman Height: 5’1⅓”, Mark: Mole on right collar bone Village: Kaub Pargana: Mosourah. Zilla: Patna
Name: Beesoony Father’s name: Jeetoo Age: 21 Sex: Male Caste: Coormie Height: 4’11⅓”, Mark: Small scar on outside corner of right eyebrow Village: Chuprah Pargana: Noonur Zilla: Arrah.
In Mauritius, it was Bihar that I first noticed in a sepia-toned ledger. In Mahatma Gandhi Institute, names looked familiar, towns I could place hurriedly on the map of Bihar. The Mauritius-Bihar connection began with an enterprising British recruiting agent named GC Arbuthnot. On September 9, 1834, he signed an agreement in the presence of the Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, Calcutta, that granted him the permission to take indentured labourers to Mauritius. The first batch of 36 labourers (then called Hill Coolies) boarded a ship called Atlas on an eight-week long journey from Calcutta to Port Louis. Atlas anchored in Mauritius on November 2, 1834 and along with the labourers brought a piece of Bihar into the island nation.
Kunty, Jaufurally, Beesoony must have walked up those 16 steps at what is now Aaprawasi Ghat to get registered as a labourer for a British-owned sugarcane plantation. Between 1834 and 1910, nearly 4.5 lakh Biharis landed in Mauritius to become indentured labourers. The monthly salary: Rs 5 for men, Rs 4 for women. On arrival, each immigrant was lodged in the port for 48 hours, registered, given an Immigrant Number, a blanket and utensils. And then their ordeal began, rising with the sun to toil in the fields. When their five-year contract expired, some labourers returned to Bihar; most chose to stay back.
Several miles and several generations apart, the Bhojpuris of Mauritius have not forgotten their way of life. Driving around Mauritius, I saw Bihar at every corner. There is a Bihar Roots Foundation, a Bhojpuri Samaj, tiny temples in each home. During Mahashivratri, devotees wear white and carry the kanwar (holy water) to the Shiva Temple, the second largest Shiva statue in the world. On Holi, every household is laden with the aroma of crisp malpua and spicy ghugni (black gram in gravy) that invariably comes with puffed puris. Dholl puri, the country’s most common street food is a derivative of the traditional Bihari dal puri. Most Bhojpuris wear a saree and the traditional orange vermillion. And yes, at home they still speak Bhojpuri; a Bhojpuri that is laced with a smattering of Kreole and English.
As I walked down the steps of the Aprawasi Ghat, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I thought of the countless Biharis who came to Mauritius in search of a better life. Some dreams were fulfilled, but most crumbled under the atrocities of the British masters. And ironically, when Mauritius became a republic, it was a man with Bihari lineage who became the first prime minister. For Sir Seewosagur Ramgoolam was the great grandson of a girmitya (an indentured labourer) from Bihar. That moment, for the Biharis, destiny came full circle in Mauritius.
Mauritian cuisine is heavily inspired by Bihari food
108 ft tall Shiva statue at Ganga Talao
Photographs of the first Bihari indentured labourers
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.