Diwali in Jamaica: My Celebration Journey
Updated: Nov 13
Written by: Krishnaveni Bholanath
Every year in late fall, many South Asian Hindus all over the world celebrate the Hindu New Year called Diwali or Deepavali.
I am an Indo Caribbean female of Jamaican heritage and culture who grew up in Los Angeles, California. I had been raised Christian for the better part of my childhood as many Jamaicans are— regardless of ethnicity or race. I denounced Christianity at a very young age as I saw it as the religion of my oppressors. I was Agnostic for the majority of my teen years. I became a Shinto-Buddhist when I married my Japanese National ex-husband at the age of 21. I studied Japanese culture and religion in college as my minor and I can speak, read and write in Japanese.
Both Japanese religions are based in Hinduism.
My many years of religious study and the ending of my 10 year marriage lead me to dive deep into my own heritage and culture. I have now been a science based Hindu Atheist for the past 7 years and am currently working on my degree in Indian Indenture History.
As my dead grandfather, Charles Bholanath, was the last practicing Hindu in my family before me (I am the only Hindu in my Indo-Jamaican family), I wondered if there were any pockets of South Asian descent communities in Jamaica still practicing Hinduism and celebrating the largest holiday in South Asian culture.
With some light reading, internet searches and a few youtube videos, I concluded that it was not going to be an easy task to find this information. The Indo-Caribbean population in Jamaica is quite small in relation to other Sugar Colony indentured Indian locations and the South Asians in Jamaica tend to keep to themselves in their tight knit communities.
With the help of instagram, I've built a little community over the past seven years of Indo-Jamaicans living all around the world.
With one message and a friend of a friend of a friend, I was able to enter into a world of untapped history about the Hindus and Diwali in Jamaica. With some help from some short essays in the Jamaican Gleaner New and a twp hour phone interview with Traditional Jamaican Indian Bhojpori dancer Ganasha Maragh, I was able to piece together a small take away on this niche culture on the island of Jamaica.
The oldest and only Hindu temple in Jamaica recognized by the Jamaican government is Sanatan Dharma Mandir (temple) which was built in 1970 by Pandit Munaeshwar Maragh, direct relative of Mr. Maragh. As many indentured came to the Caribbean as skilled labourers over the years of European exploitation, towards the end of the horrors of South Asian indentureship some of the last few ships to Jamaica were populated by religious Hindu pandits who were Mr. Maragh's direct relatives.
Before the Sanatan Temple was built, many Indo-Jamaican Hindus celebrated and worshiped in the privacy of their home with close family.
The areas of Clarendon, Westmorland, St Thomas and St Mary (my Indo-Jamaican family’s hometown) are the areas with the largest South Asian Indian populations, due to this geographical fact— the locations for building the temple were picked to accommodate the Hindu people of these locations. The Sanatan Mandir is open daily, with service offered every Sunday at 10am [ info: courtesy of The Jamaican Gleaner].
I learned a lot from my long conversation with Mr. Maragh. According to him, his family's heavy involvement in the Jamaican Hindu culture has made his family the ones keeping our South Asian culture and indigenous religion alive in Jamaica for over 150 years.
Based on his family's oral history and sacred pandit book passed down and some of his own research, Mr Maragh, like I and many other Indo-Caribbean historians of the South Asian Indentured population, have concluded that the majority of the South Asian populous of Jamaica and Suriname are from the more Northern regions of India and pre-Pakistan before independence and secession from mainland India. This is quite different from our Indo-Caribbean neighbours in Trinidad and Guyana who are more of South Indian blood lines. Many Indians in Jamaica claim lineage to the Lucknow area of Northern India, making the style of Hinduism and Indian culture that evolved in Jamaica special and endemic to the island.
In recent pre-Covid times there have been a few Diwali festivals and presentations held by temples, national historical sites and Indo-Jamaican community non-profit organizations.
Here are a few places you can contact about the possibility of enjoying Diwali in Jamaica:
Devon House Historical Heritage Site and mansion is a former sugar plantation that has held Diwali festivals, known for their amazing handcrafted Jamaican Ice Cream and signature square shaped patties, home to several restaurants and a popular wedding location.
The Indian Cultural Society of Jamaica, has held annual Diwali festivals. It's mission is to highlight the Desi footprint left on j\Jamaican soil by exhibiting the very best Indian culture has to offer.
Last but not least, I could not find any direct contact info for them, but I did watch five Youtube videos of Diwali festivals in Jamaica sponsored by the non-profit Friends for Education.
After my 5 days of research I concluded that I still needed something to round out this essay. Once again turned to my Instagram Indo-Jamaican community and composed a list of general Jamaican Diwali questions. From New York, Florida, California and Jamaica, Indo-Jamaicans came to help me with my essay.
1. When did you firdt learn about Diwali?
2. As a Hindu-Jamaican or as an Indo-Jamaican how important was Diwali in your family? And do you think it is important that the traditional South Asian religions are kept alive in Jamaica?
3. Have you ever attended a Diwali festival in Jamaica or observed Diwali from home with family in Jamaica? If yes, what were some traditions you can teach me?
4. What's your fondest memory of Diwali?
5. Favourite dish, chat or sweet during Hindu celebrations?
These are the short yet complex questions i posed to my fellow Indo-Jamaicans
Lana Patel in South California is an LGBTQ+ activist and a supporter to others going through transition.
1. I learned about Diwali as a child. We didn't celebrate in my mom's house but it was always a majestic celebration for me.
2. It was important to my Hindu Jamaican relatives for sure and I believe it's a tradition that needs to be kept alive because it is our heritage.
3. I've never attended Diwali in Jamaica but I'm ready to after this quarantine if lifted!
4. My fondest moments are going to the Mandir for prayers, seeing friends and lighting diya and then going to the gurdwara for the evening to watch fireworks and light diya, say more prayers and have lunghar.
5. favorite dish OMG there are too many! I love chai of course and Dhal puri and I'm a jalebi or ladoo girl.
Chef Johansen in Jamaica, owner of Johgi Foods Bakery and Catering
1. I learned about it in prep School
2. It isn't celebrated by my family but I believe the knowledge of the culture should be taught even if it is not celebrated.
3. I've never attended one
4. I can't say. We're Christians so it's a case where we don't typically celebrate Indian festivals beside Hussay (which has roots in Islam as well I believe).
Mr Ganasha Maragh in New York is a traditional Indian Jamaican Folk Dancer and descendant of original Hindu Pandits in Jamaica.
From a very young age, when I was 4 years old I was already deep into the Hindu temple traditions. As a descendent of Pandit my father was the one who trained me about the opening prayers and significance of the lighting of Diyas from a very young Age
It was very much our Christmas. It was the biggest event of the year for my family and Indian Jamaican community. My father held on strong to the traditions passed down. My family is from Lucknow and items like the Rohan drum and Jamaican Fiddle also have their origins in Lucknow.
Same many amazing life long Diwali mamories, my most recent time Celebrating in Jamaica was in 2015 for the Temple’s 50th Anniversary. It was a lovely experience.
My most fond memory as a child was a tradition of bending bamboo poles into a spider legged stand to sit the clay diyas on top and light them. I also just enjoy participating in the festive decorations and diya preparations.
My #1 fave sweet is called Mohan Bhog a soft sweet dough made of rice flour and ghee and Jamaican Style parsad. I also love Korma and a special dhal made in Jamaica called Red Peas Dhal.
Michael Raj in Florida LGBTQ+ activist and Indo-Jamaican indentured historian.
I never heard my family talk about it. I knew of Diwali through Gyanese friends of mine.
Not in my family. From my research and understanding only observant Hindus in Jamaica know of and celebrate it. Or if they are not of indian indentures heritage, but are Indian nationals who have recently immigrated to jamaica from india.
As a person very interested in the culture and lineage of my family, the history of the indentured indian in Jamaica and how it has shaped Jamaica are very important.
Not Sure …..
I don't know any South Asian style sweets made by Jamaicans.
I do hope you were able to learn something new from reading my essay on Diwali in Jamaica.
And I wish all those who celebrate Diwali all around the world that education triumphs over ignorance this and every Diwali. Out of Many is One People.