For the Hindus in Fiji, the Ramayana in the form of the Ramacharitmanas probably holds more value than it does even for the Hindus of India.
In their play, the Ramlila, the opening scene showed a man, a labourer, who has recently landed on the Fijian islands. He reveals to his wife that Indians who have traveled to Fiji have been duped by the British.
The British made false promises.
He breaks down and tells her about the verbal abuse, physical punishment and the ensuing brutality from the British employers, which many of them have the undergo at work.
Then, his wife tells him something which is neither a remedy nor a solution or escape.
She tells him that they must learn from the lives of Ram and Sita, who suffered displacement on the account of banishment, and yet, fought the resulting hardships.
She tells him that Ramayana guides them to endure hardship and rise above it - through the pain of displacement.
Ramayana and Dashratha are referred to in the same strain of reference as would be used for a parent.
Fiji At The Ramayana Festival
At the fifth International Ramayana Festival held in New Delhi, last month, members of a group of performers who represented Fiji brought a glimpse of the history of their community displaced from the motherland.
They were members of Shri Satsang Ramayana Mandli - a group of performers that propagates the Ramayana and stories from the epic and its teachings through the singing of chaupais for fellow Fijians of Indian origin living in Fiji.
They practice and perform Ramlila annually. The performers look towards the Ramayana as the lifeblood, structure and nerve of a their throbbing continuity in a multi-ethnic country.
Ramayana - The mother to Fijian girmitiya
In Ramlila, or the depiction of Ramayana through theatrical performance, it is rare to see the Ramayana acquire more importance than any character, as it did in the Fijian presentation.
This speaks of the emotional depth in which the Fijians of Indian origin revere both Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas to say the story of hardships endured by their forefathers.
Through the Ramayana and Ramlila, they tell the Fijian part of the sprawling girmitiya story.
Ramayana across the seas
When the British turned to India to fulfill their needs of deriving indentured labour for the colony of Fiji, they would be turning another chapter in the history of indentured emigration in India.
Those who made the journey across the seas came to be known as girmitiyas.
Their lives and work was bound by a "girmit" - how "agreement" was understood and referred to in the native rural parlance.
The imagery of ships lingers in their narration of the Ramayana.
So, in the performance in Delhi there was a unique prelude to the "play". A short story, anchored by a narrator and photographs in black and white - evidently dug from girmitiya history and culture resources - was presented before curtains went up to the act.
The year is 1884. Promised a better future, and buying the promise, the migrant from India loaded themselves, their lives and hope, on ‘Syria’, a ship, which was carrying 497 passengers on that particular voyage.
As per the story narrated, some distance off the Fiji coast, the ship capsized and 59 people lost their lives. Many on the ship lost all their savings and possessions.
But they could manage to save the most precious possession. "Laal kapde mein liptee Ramayana" - "Ramayana wrapped in red cloth."
The Force Of Satsang and Sanatan
The first two generations of girmitiyas struggled to uphold their culture and identity in their new home. Ramayana rescued them.
Their forefathers were uneducated, but they wanted to ensure that their children and the coming generations get education and remain rooted to tradition. "In this too, Ramayana and its reading played a huge role," they say.
The actors were mostly students and men and women with day jobs. Most of them trace their origins to different parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as per what their parents have told them.
Some, like Sachin Shankar, a performer in the group who is a banker, is not aware of which village or town his forefathers travelled from. He says, "We have not even tried to find it. India is our motherland and that's enough to know as people who revere the Ramayana."
They are not only well versed in the chaupais of Ramcharitmanas, they have made the exploration of Ramayana, through satsang and keertan their practice.
They told Swarajya that the reading of Ramayana was developed as a habit by the elders. The elders would keep the Ramayana before the kids. Akhilesh Niranjan Prasad, the leader of the Fijian group, said, "Kehte thhe jod jod kar parho (join the words and read on). Reading Ramayana Maharani became a tradition for younger generations."
According to Prasad, they use music to connect the co-Fijians and families in Fiji they visit on a weekly basis, through the satsang.
It is part of children's education in Sanatan Dharm schools (nearly 20-23 per cent schools in Fiji are Sanatan Dharm schools according to him). Kids are encouraged to pick music just so they remained glued to satsang and through it, to Ramayana.
He adds, "Whenever a new Sanatan Dharm schools came up in Fiji, the people of Indian origin ensured that a Ramayana-inclined satsang mandli is established at these schools. Fijians of Indian origin mingle with each other at Tamil Sangam institutions and Sanatan Dharm institutions."
Ramayana - The Maharani Above The Queen
Music and singing are the base on which rests their exploration of the Ramayana. For them, Ramayana has a gender. Ramayana Maharani.
According to Akhilesh Niranjan Prasad - a fourth generation Fijian of Indian origin, the girmitiyas began to address Ramayana as Ramayana Maharani. The aim was to send a message that the girmitiyas consider the Ramayana as the highest authority, and no other queen could replace her in stature.
According to Prasad, as per what the fourth generation of people of Indian origin have been told by their parents, the story is something like this. In Fiji, the British would say "Rani ki jai ho"- "Long Live the Queen".
"In a fitting reply to it, the girmitiyas would say Maharani Ramayana ki jai. It developed as a cry of revolt. Even today we call her Maharani Ramayana. It is never lowered from the level of the head" Prasad adds.
Retelling Ramayana is retelling the many stories that make one giant story in the epic.
And within that painful story, members of this satsang group retell how the Ramayana has been a mother to the five generations of Fijians of Indian origin and helped them survive culturally and remain united as one single family.
"People in Fiji were working in terrible conditions, they were ill treated. They were put in barracks - 10 in one, where not even three would fit properly. Ramayan unka aadhaar bani (it became the base for them)," Prasad adds.
The performers told Swarajya that they do not believe in caste system. Ramayana is at the peak of everything religiosity, culture and civilisational survival means to them. To that, they joyously shout, "Ramayan Maharani Ki Jai".