Thursday, August 16, 2007


Hindu Press International

August 15, 2007

1. First All-Dalit Trust to Run Bihar Temple
2. Hindu Priest of Reunion Island Interviewed

1. First All-Dalit Trust to Run Bihar Temple

PATNA, INDIA, August 12, 2007: Affairs of the 300-year-old Khaki Baba Ram Janki Thakurbari at Hilsa will now be managed by an all-Dalit trust. Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts administrator Kishore Kunal said it would be the country's first all-Dalit trust for a temple. Kunal, who has launched a campaign to appoint Dalit priests in important temples with the consent of the worshippers and Hindu society, said the suggestion for an all-Dalit trust, coming from the mandir mahant and the locals, was proof that people have started rejecting untouchability.

The trust has been constituted with a local school teacher belonging to Paswan caste as head and has members from castes like Ravidas, Chamar and Rajak among others. Kunal, who is busy giving final touches to the second volume of his 1,500-page work "Dalit Devo Bhava," said Dalit priests are already leading prayers in around six temples. He blamed dharma gurus for keeping "Shudras" away from temples for years while the scriptures preached otherwise.
2. Hindu Priest of Reunion Island Interviewed

REUNION, FRANCE, April 14, 2007: (HPI note: Reunion is a overseas department [province or state] of France that is located off Africa in the Indian Ocean and near the country of Mauritius. It has a significant Hindu population. The interview was one by P. David, in collaboration with Kanal Indian Ocean, KOI FM Radio in Reunion. It was published in French and has been translated for HPI. This is a rare view into Hinduism in Reunion and is reproduced in full below.)

We continue the series "Religions and Secularity in Reunion" with an interview with Serge Ajaguin-Soleyen. He is a pusari or pujari - as Tamil Hindu priests are locally known - at the Marliemen temple of Saint-Paul. He's one of the young priests trained in the Reunionese social and cultural crucible and a child of Reunion's Hindu reawakening over the past twenty years. He describes here his years of training, the social and cultural climate in which he grew up and how he made his way to where he is: a spiritual light in Reunion's Hindu community.

Serge Ajaguin-Soleyen, you come from a family of farmers, what cultural heritage did you receive from the maternal and paternal sides of your family?

I am now 43 years old. The community asks me to do family religious ceremonies (births, marriages, burials) in the four corners of the island. And secondarily, I am a farmer and agricultural adviser of the Department (of Reunion), an administrator with the Caisse de Credit Agricole of Saint-Paul. My grandparents were farmers, my parents were farmers and distributors. I love it, and that's why I went into it at first, then I went into civil service. In the rural environment of my childhood, every morning we had our chores, and it was really something! Before going to school, we had to take care of the animals, to cut grass for them from the sides of the road, and clean their pens. Both my grandfathers practiced Hinduism. But on my mother's side, it was a deeper experience because her father was himself a pujari, a priest. I was closer to him, and he had a temple at Trois-Bassins. We went there during vacations and for major festivals. The most special one was the firewalking ceremony in December when the entire family participated, including the cousins. It was a fantastic time. I absorbed Hinduism as I watched my grandfather. I was his viker (as assistant priests are known) the only one among all his grandchildren. When I was 12, two friends of my grandfather gave me a blessing. They said to me: "One day, you will be a priest and carry on this work." And that is what happened. I am also a social worker, as well as a priest priest at my grandfather's temple in Trois-Bassins.

You were less than 12 when your grandfather died. Where did you live then? And what role did your uncles play in your upbringing?

After my parent's divorce, I lived with my father and my paternal uncle at Plaine-Saint-Paul. And I went up to Trois-Bassins only for summer vacation. My paternal uncles gave me the opportunity to express myself in their temple. My paternal uncle was a farmer who worked a large plot. He worked very hard and long and let down his religious practice a little, but did go 3 or 4 times per year, at special times to the Siva Soupramanien temple of Saint-Paul. On my mother's side, we celebrated every month: the festival of Marliemen in May, the festival of Karli in August, the fire walking festival of December. That's what attracted me most and I looked to my maternal uncles to have access to the temple.

Do you remember how the Reunionese (citizens of Reunion) felt about your pujas? At first, I performed just like my grandfather, and like Tonton Marde and Ti Francis. But after a while, after visiting other temples and watching the brahmans at work, I wanted to officiate like them. One day, Mr. Dali Eraya performed a ceremony for us. I noticed that he had a speci al talent. I liked his style and I asked to become his viker. That's you become pujari: by being viker for somebody. After I served him for a while, he asked me whether I wanted to become pujari and I accepted. That's when I really started.

Like all the children, you went to school. Can you speak about those years and the changes they brought to you?

At the beginning,I attended the Plaine Saint-Paul high school, at Bois de Nefles; and I had thought of going to Saint-Paul, because I noticed that my uncle at the Plaine only wanted to work while my other uncle lived downtown. At the entry in 6th, I seized the opportunity to go to live at his place, with his consent. He was more interested in Hindu culture, especially the language. And he helped me go to the Eugene Dayot high school, in Saint-Paul, until 3rd. This was a turning point. It gave me the opportunity to meet Aya Mani, to be close to the temple of Saint-Paul, to meet Aya Gobalsamy, the former prie st at the Siva Soupramanien temple who had come from Mauritius. These two men played an important part in my life, shaping my initial training in Hinduism.

And in your "citizenship training," what influenced you the most?

It was a climate of tolerance. I did not feel discrimination. I had friends in school, in Saint-Paul, who were Moslem, Chinese, Catholic etc. We got along very well. At the time of the Moslem festivals they'd share cakes with us. From a very young age, I approached the other cultures of Reunion. We'd ask each other "How is life among you people?" This was a very good experience. After 3rd standard I went to Saint-Joseph. It was the first year of BTA. As it was a little far, I only came home on weekends, and Saturday-Sunday, I lived in the temple. I had time to learn as an intern. And Saturdays, I studied with Aya Gobalsamy and Mr. Aya Mani Dali.

Later, you asked for and obtained special authorization to be able to return ear lier?

When I was doing my military service. I went to the colonel after the 12 days of basic training and presented a request which Aya Gobalsamy had prepared on my behalf, as a priest, and also representing the president of the Siva Vishnou Karli Association, Mr. Gilbert Mardenalom, asking that i be excused earlier on Friday to go to the temple. Therefore, I was exempted from maintenance, review, etc... and I was allowed to leave earlier to get my training at the temple.

What stood out for you after these years of training, in the life of the Saint-Paul temple?

The Mauritian priest, Aya Gobalsamy, had been there for several years. But he had not found the young people for whom to create a school. There had been attempts before, but they had failed. For example, in 1964, Aya Mani Dali started a fire walking ceremony for the goddess Marliemen, a 10 days walk, which nobody had seen here before. Many wanted to keep the old way of religious pract ice in Reunion. We formed a small group and became his disciples. And he asked us to commit to helping him make certain changes in the way Hinduism is practiced in Reunion. We realized that if we do not reform certain prohibitions in our temples, they will be empty tomorrow. I knew all about that.

To have more authority; I started to visit India every year beginning in 1984. The first time, I was accompanied by Swamiji from the ashram at Le Port. I spent two months over there, one month in his ashram in Bombay and then one month as a tourist to discover India-South and North. I found out here was another way of living Hinduism.

In 1985 there was the creation of l'Ecole Tamij de Saint-Paul (Tamil School of Saint-Paul), under the impulse of the priest Aya Gobalsamy. That really introduced an upheaval into the teaching of the Hinduism and also into the Hindu Reunionese society. We introduced ceremonies (Sadurti, Kartigai...) and changes in clothing - the veshti for men and the sari for the women. Many did not understand these changes and said that it was Mauritian culture. It was badly perceived. It should not be forgotten that we'd been cut off from our country (of origin, India) for approximately one century at that point. Compared to the vision, with the practices, a certain number of books had disappeared. All was done orally. With our new school, we could advance the things in this field. There were stil l things to bring to the island. Therefore, I felt this need, I supported Mr. Mani Dali, and I do so to this day.

At which time you did feel the need to learn Tamil, which you didn't speak in your childhood?

The rituals learned from our grandfathers were transmitted orally and committed to memory. I was not satisfied. During the creation of the Tamil school, by Gobalsamy and Mr. Dali, we had the opportunity to be initiated into the language. I wanted to learn the longer chants, I wanted to understand the meaning. By coincidence, the ILA (Institute of Languages and Anthropology) was created at the University at that time. I was enrolled, we were among the first from Saint-Paul. Under the impulse of Mr. Sinouvassen, who became my second professor of language. I am with him still, and it is towards him that I turn when I have difficulties of comprehension a text.

While carrying on your work as a pujari, you also have another profession. Can you tell us how you became a farmer?

That was one key moment, after my military service. I began in 1985. And then I wanted to increase my exploitation on 79 acres in Maido, Petite France, as a cattle breeder. When I had to make a choice, in 1998, I separated from the large farm. I entered to the Council general in 1999. Eighty percent of my time is now spent at the office.

How does one become a pujari? Is there a special ceremony received?

I had this chance to be with Mr. Mani Dali. He blessed me the first with a prayer; and said "starting from today, you are a priest, you will be able to do the ceremonies." He often delegated. People came to see him to ask for such or such ceremony and he'd tell them: "Serge is a priest now, he'll do the ceremony, and when I die, he will replace me, so it will be necessary for you to go to see him." One also becomes a pujari by the support and appreciation of leading members of the community. Today, I am asked to make presentations at various conferences which occur throughout the island. That also obliges me to go further, and thus I am a little like a scout for the community on various points concerning religious life. For the last three or four years, I've done five fire walking ceremonies annually, because my presence is needed in five different temples. Today, I also do many burials. I've also started to create my own school to train new priests for tomorrow.

Regarding the evolutions necessary, even difficult: have they brought a revival of the practice of Hinduism? How do you view the current practices in Reunion.

In Reunionese Hinduism there are two series of requests. On March 20, I was in a meeting of Tamil Sangam, of which I am Vice-president, and they asked me to create a school for pujari. Among the pupils, there were two of them who had kept to the style of worship of their great grandparents. I said to them: "There are things which we can improv e, while holding on to them, but there are also things which we must re-examine." When our great grandparents arrived here they were volunteer laborers and there were no priests and so they designated somebody among them to do the ceremonies. That's why I say that today there are things to re-examine, others to keep. We are on this path, to find a code which will define the way of practicing a Hinduism unique to Reunion, taking into the account the view of the pure conservatives, those who wish to evolve and others, perhaps, who will prepare the Hinduism of the future.

What's your position on this and what would like to see change?

I would like to change some of the prohibitions. When I see the number of temples which have been built in Reunion, and the number of priests they have, it is necessary to ensure that these temples continue to live on. There are currently prohibitions against temple worship for a certain number of days, for example at the bir th of a child. The woman who had a child is regarded as impure and cannot enter a holy place. Also there are prohibitions regarding death. We've tried to explain that the impurity is related to matters of health for which people were formerly quarantined. These are precisely two points of prohibition which we should re-examine today.

What do you propose?

I hope that we find agreement between the local religious authorities, and those of India. We live in a society which is changing very quickly, with universalization and Europeanization of this country. Here we live in two cultures: European and Hindu. A happy medium should be found, to remain a Hindu and practice Hinduism while including and understanding other cultures and while living in the reunionnaise society.

Some are shocked when it is said that the Hinduism is also one of the tourist assets of the island? Are people ready to open to the temples, to let tourists visit?

That does not shock me at all. Moreover, when we go to India, we want to pray in the temples. But we know very well that in India we are also tourists, even though we are Hindus. This is because we also want to go to see the mosques, catholic churches and so on. I do not think that the temples managed by an association are ready to open for tourists. If we request subsidies from the State for construction or to bring in artists, etc... it does not shock me that they want something in return. People will better accept us if we are more open, if we share our religion, our culture with them.

You've talked about debates on what should be changed or kept. So, what do the Reunion Hindus want to keep and what they are ready to change. How far are they willing to go?

Some have started planning to remodel their temples in a more Dravidian style. For example that's what what we're seeing in Saint-Denis on Marechal Leclerc Street. On the other hand there are others wh o want to keep the temples in a square shape as it formerly was done. That was the least expensive construction method, and we could not do it differently. The statues which are inside, with the personality of each divinity, represent visual aids; it is important to see the difference of each divinity compared to each other in the stone face. Previously, we couldn't that. We took a rock or some round stone from the beach and gave it a few blows with a chisel. Some do not want to move on to something better saying that this method is part of the heritage from their reunionnais ancestors.

Do you think that today the Hindu Pantheon is better known in Reunion?

Yes, surely. With the monthly ceremonies (sadurti, kartigai, parnumi, amavasi...). Whereas before, we observed only three ceremonies per year. Now we celebrate the birth of Ganesh (Sadurti), Kartigai, the festival of Mourouga; Yegardesi, the festival of Maha Vishnu; Amavasi, the festival of the ancestors; Paunemi, the festival of the moon. Each one means the Hindu Pantheon is now called upon every month. I think that this will continue, and we'll eventually invoke the Pantheon every week, then each day. The real difficulty for people who work, is the very demanding and rigorous attendance over a period of ten days each time. Therefore we have to loosen up certain injunctions and prohibitions, so we can live Hinduism on a daily basis.

People call upon you for family ceremonies which are more frequent today than before. Would you say something about this?

That's true and it's because the religious practice is more widespread. Previously, there were two religions being practiced at the same time: Catholicism and Hinduism. More and more, it is seen that from the birth to death, people only practice Hinduism. There still remain people who practice Christianity and Hinduism simultaneously. Personally, I think that it is necessary to choose between them. If one wants to look further into the Hinduism, it is easier to assimilate only one way of life; an then one will be more harmony with oneself.

Pujari is a religious title and also one of authority. But what this means has changed in Reunionese society for 30 years. Why... or how?

The word pujari was not very well understood at the beginning. Then we explained what it meant: one who offers flowers to the divinity. It is the true meaning of pujari. Since he is known better, he is accepted also better. Today, in the families, we're called for the various ceremonies: birth, the 16th day, puberty, engagement, marriage... and other kinds of events... until death. The pujari is who one calls for these ceremonies.

When you married, you had a Hindu wedding. Wasn't that unusual at the time?

It was not frequent like it is today. Here we always try to celebrate a marriage so to be sure that people who are invited will come. Previously, it was easy to find a Sunday: there were not so many ceremonies, one or two per year perhaps. Today, by consulting our calendar and finding the favorable days ... perhaps ten favorable Sundays in a year, and today on those ten Sundays, one can have from 5 to 7 Hindu weddings. That's started to increase. One notices the increasing frequency and through it a will to practise Hinduism more.

How many pujari are there in Reunion?

There are about twen ty pujaris which officiate for the general public. And there are pujaris which officiate only for their family. I can't say why.

Those who maintain a double practice-Catholic and Hindu; how are they looked at?

They are well thought of. To give you an example: at death, certain people take the body of their relative to the church and have it blessed by the priest. And the next day, they come to me to continue performing religious ceremony until the 16th day, like we do in Hinduism. I do it without problem. On the contrary, if that is what is done, it is often because the children of the deceased are returning towards Hinduism. If the child returns, that is to say that he understood that the whole of the ceremonies should be done according to Hinduism; then perhaps that he will ask his children to do a tamoul (Hindu) burial for him, without passing by the church. These people should be helped.

Bodies are buried also in Hinduism, but cremation i s more widely practiced. How does this mixing of traditions affect you?

In India, there are Hindus who practice burial. We say that the body is composed of five elements and if a body is burned, the five elements return more quickly to nature. Therefore, for us, it is more hygienic and it is better. At times, we do burials in the cemetery and we also do cremation.

The recent destruction of the temple of Harambure scared the Reunionese society a lot. How did you perceive this event?

Personally, I do not understand how people can be destructive like that... For me, it is a monument, it is not a temple. One speaks much today about safeguarding the Reunionese heritage: for me, this temple is part of our heritage. We mustn't forget that this temple was built by factory workers of all communities - kaf, yab, malbar... Today, all these Reunionite families are touched by the destruction of this monument. It is an attack on our history, not only the h eritage of the original Indians who came here. We still have families who are directly tied to this heritage.

At the end of this interview, what invitation would you like to make?

In the name of the association of the Siva-Vishnou-Karli temple of Saint-Paul, we invite the population to celebrate with us Maha Kumba Abhishekam, the dedication of the temple of Marliemen by 12 Indian priests, augmented by myself as a pujari. We will also do a fire walking there.

This temple of Saint-Paul is very old. You can speak to us about his history and tell us if it is the first dedication? And why is it occurring now?

The temple was built long ago. It was square in the beginning. We wanted to remake it in the Dravidian tradition, according to the Agama (measurements of construction); we did it with an architect who was on the spot. The temple which will be consecrated is behind of the temple of Mourouga. It is still under construction, and three Indians work there.

Why is it being consecrated by Indian priests rather than by Reunionnais pujari ?

We chose this type of dedication for our elders who have never had a chance to visit India; we wanted them to see the talent of the gurukals, the Indian forms of mantra, and a dedication in the greatest tradition of the Agama and the rules of Veda. This was a good opportunity to do this. This celebration will take place of the 25 at April 29, 2007, just after New Year's day. And I seize the occasion to wish everyone a good and happy year.

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