WE PICKED our way through the cool water of the Marianne River in Blanchisseuse. As we walked holding on to each other, being careful not to fall on the slippery river stones, we talked about the importance of ritual in generating positive energy in our lives and our country.
The ritual we had gone to take part in was Ganga Dhara, a river festival observed by practitioners of the Hindu faith in honour of the female deity Ganga. This was the 25th year of the festival started by Pundit Ravindranath Maharaj of the Hindu Prachaar Kendra in Enterprise. Offerings of flowers and fruit were made, the hair of children four years old and under was shaved, and pundits led the prayers, singing and giving of blessings.
On entering the space, participants asked Lord Ganesh to remove obstacles. A little further up, a large bell was suspended and devotees rang it as they moved higher up the river. The vibrations that come from the ringing of the bell help to displace negative energies, serve to focus the mind on prayer and summon the blessings of the deities.
We noticed that people were looking at us curiously, and then we understood. Amongst dozens of East Indian Hindu devotees, we counted among the few people of African heritage participating in these rituals.
Their curiosity, though respectful, spoke volumes about the amount of work that is still needed to truly educate nationals about the value of shared heritage. In the context of sacred spaces, what are the possibilities for exploring the notions of inclusion, differences and similarities? Indeed, what would be the point of such a discussion?
On the day of Ganga Dhara, the Marianne River was occupied by people of predominantly East Indian and Hindu orientation.
However, on a different day, it could have been any of the ethnic groups that comprise our complex society. Osun, the deity of rivers and fresh waters, is also celebrated by water festivals here in TT, and in other places where traditional African belief systems survived, such as Cuba and Brazil.
Similarly, our First Peoples venerate the life-giving force of the river, particularly during the celebration of First Peoples Heritage Day in October.
But beyond the practices common to our indigenous belief systems, there are wider cultural implications.
As we become increasingly aware of the damage that our actions can cause to the Earth, it is to our indigenous beliefs and practices that we will have to turn. The importance of recycling and proper disposal of our waste are key examples.
At Ganga Dhara, the offerings of fruit were later shared with participants to avoid waste, while members of the community were constantly collecting the flowers and other items to prevent the river becoming clogged. Many rivers around the world are excessively polluted as a result of human beings benefitting from their healing powers, without recognising that the very rivers that serve us need to be protected.
Placing value on simple lifestyles, knowing the healing properties of herbs, respecting the habitat of the animals with which we share the Earth – all of these are principles that such festivals highlight.
Another characteristic of a sacred space is its impact on time. Time seems to slow down, forcing concentration on specific tasks such as positive thinking or mediation. Sacred space is thus defined as “time and space we set aside ... to experience a depth, richness, and sense of meaning that usually escapes us in fast-paced everyday life when we are not as connected as we could be with our body, intuition, good thinking, compassion and empathy, and other emotions.”
As such, our presence in such a space helps to connect us to a better understanding of the divine, within and around us.
If we could expand this understanding, our society would be more holistic in every way. Our schools would be viewed as centres of learning rather than the continued factory-type approach to education. We would create more parks and green spaces so families can experience the outdoors in a safe environment. We would fix our buses and promote riding of bicycles to reduce the pollution and congestion of cars. We would see collective wealth and not endless opportunities to steal.
As we headed home, we held on to the serenity of the river and to the message that she seemed to speak to us; sacred spaces are not only external, but can be found within. We therefore have the power to take them wherever we go.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN