Indo Fijian History Culture

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Clement Paligaru

An Indo-Fijian, Clement Paligaru came to Australia in 1984. He has reported extensively on the Pacific region forthe Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Today's Indo-Fijians are among some 10 million descendents of indentured Indian labourers who live outside India.

It would be hard to imagine Fiji without Indo-Fijians. With enterprise and resilience, they have forged a presence that permeates throughout the country. Despite mostly being the descendants of indentured labourers who arrived in the country up to 130 years ago, Indo-Fijians are still considered vulagi (visitors) by many indigenous Fijians. But this has never stopped them making the most of life on the islands, adding their own touch to the rich mosaic of Fiji's cultural traditions.

For a visitor, this Indo-Fijian presence is difficult to ignore. Fiji may well be best known for indigenous ceremonies, lovo (earth ovens), leis and crafts; however, Indo-Fijian culture provides another dimension - food, shopping, temples and festivals, as colourful as you would find in Rajas-than but with an undeniably Fijian character.

After decades of living the island life, Indo-Fijians have dispensed with many formalities they carried from India. Instead, a laid-back culture has evolved, forever changed by circumstance and liberal doses of the infectious Pacific way. It's one Indian lifestyle you're unlikely to encounter or enjoy anywhere else in the world.


The earliest Indian arrivals in Fiji were indentured labourers brought by the British to work in the sugar industry in the 1870s. As the pioneers adapted to life as labourers, they also forged the foundations of a unique Indo-Fijian cultural identity, later bequeathed to generations that followed.

Very early on, it had dawned on most workers that the confines of plantation life were simply too tough and restrictive to accommodate the strict social and religious codes of India. Labourers began socialising, eating and marrying across caste and religious lines. That's not to say religious and cultural practices were abandoned. The new Indo-Fijians simply got rid of the social hang ups. The 'subversive' practice of selecting only the Indian customs that suited life on the islands had begun.

When the time came to return home after their labour contracts had expired, many Indians decided to remain in Fiji. For many this decision was made because they were not eligible for, or couldn't afford, the costly passage to India. Another reason was the possibility of being kicked out of their communities back home for breaking Indian mores. In any case, the idea of starting anew in Fiji was much more attractive for many Indian labourers. Little did they realize that the bountiful future would also be a fraught one.

By the time indentured labour was abolished in 1919, independent sugar-cane, cotton, tobacco and rice farms had been set up by Indo-Fijians on land mostly leased from indigenous Fijians. Other migrants ran small stores or became public servants and maids. The big move into commerce began in the 1930s, following the arrival of a second wave of business migrants from India. There was no doubt Indo-Fijians were hard working and becoming prosperous. Some indigenous Fijians found they didn't make bad friends either. But their success did not go down well with everyone.

As the new migrants set about laying the foundations for their future, many indigenous Fijians began to feel increasingly uneasy. The customs and ambitions of Indo-Fijians were deemed offensive. And some Fijians regarded the migrants as usurpers of their land. This was despite laws introduced in the late 1800s forbidding the sale of native land, and forever guaranteeing indigenous Fijians over 80% of land ownership. This, however, did not stop the Indio-Fijians from demanding rich arable land for lease. As the Indo-Fijian farmers and businesspeople became prosperous, many indigenous groups became wary of being eclipsed economically. The seeds were sown for decades of dispute, primarily over land leases, between the two ethnic groups.

By the mid-1900s the Indo-Fijians had became indispensable to the economy, dominating agriculture, business and the public service. They also outnumbered indigenous Fijians. But the lack of political power and land-ownership rights remained a source of insecurity for the Indo-Fijians. A previously fledgling campaign for political equality began gaining momentum despite facing stiff resistance from Europeans and Fijians.

When independence from Britain occurred in 1970 the campaign for equality had laid the foundations for race-based politics in the country. After much debate, the new constitution set out an electoral system arranged along racial lines. Indo-Fijians, like other races, would be allocated a set number of seats in parliament. The politics of ethnicity was now institutionalised. To win easy votes, political parties could play the race card.

After independence, Indo-Fijians felt fairly secure under the rule of Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, whose Alliance Party promoted multiracialism. During this period, national celebrations showcasing Indo-Fijian culture alongside the indigenous became the norm. But some Fijians were troubled by this increased acceptance of Indo-Fijian culture. In the mid-1970s the Alliance Party's concessions to Indo-Fijians on issues such as land leases, combined with the lack of prosperity among indigenous Fijians, led to a backlash by nationalists. Warning of an Indo-Fijian takeover, they demanded that 'visitors' leave.

As the Alliance Party scrambled to introduce pro-indigenous policies in the mid-1980s, Indo-Fijian voters turned to the new Fiji Labour Party (FLP) and its platform of social reform. Labour, in coalition with an Indo-Fijian-dominated party won the elections in 1987. But, soon afterwards, it was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. The reason? Although the government was lead by an indigenous Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavadra, the idea of an Indo-Fijian-dominated coalition was too much for the nationalists. To ensure the pendulum didn't ever swing back to favour Indo-Fijians, Rabuka introduced a racially biased constitution in 1990. Thousands of skilled and professional Indo-Fijians fled the country.

By the mid-1990s Rabuka, now prime minister, came under pressure internally and internationally to review the 1990 constitution. It was during this review that Fiji came closest to ending its long history of the politics of race. Calls were made to minimise the number of race-based parliamentary seats. A complex system of governance was recommended, which would force parties to cooperate across ethnic lines and 'share power'. The new constitution, declared in 1997, adopted some of these ideas. It was fairer to the Indo-Fijians, but it was not as progressive as some had hoped, and seats were still race based. Nevertheless, constitutional experts lauded the idea of political power sharing in government, which aimed to promote interethnic cooperation.

The word girrmt is used to describe the indenture system. It entered the Indo-Fijian lexicon when the girmitiyas (early labourers) mispronounced the word agreement.

At least 15 Indo-Fijian religious and cultural associations exist around the country, through which communities maintain cultural and religious affiliations with India. One organisation established the new University of Fiji near Lautoka in 2005.


This 2005 book, by Shalini Akhil, tells the story of Kesh and her cousin, Rupa. Kesh is a feminist, loves pubs, swears a lot and was born and raised in Australia. Her Indo-Fijian cousin Rupa is the exact opposite. She diligently cooks curries, wears saris and is heading for an arranged marriage. When Rupa comes to live with Kesh in Melbourne, their worlds collide. Wicked humour and disarming honesty spice up this tale of culture clash, identity struggle and the Indo-Fijian way. For more information on the book, see

Indo-Fijian musiims, Labasa,Vanua Levu

In the 1999 elections, Rabuka was rejected and Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister, FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry, came to office. But within a year, Chaudhry's confrontational style and social-reform agenda proved unpalatable for the nationalists. In 2000 the Chaudhry government was overthrown, following a coup led by nationalists. Chief among Chaudhry's sins was his insistence on a fair outcome for thousands of Indo-Fijian farmers whose long-term land leases were expiring.

After a lengthy series of court battles regarding the coup, Fiji returned to the polls in 2001. The country elected Lasenia Qarase, a declared champion of the indigenous cause, as its leader.

Since Qarase's election, Indo-Fijians have again been leaving the country in droves. But many more have chosen to remain in Fiji, the country they call home, including those Indo-Fijians in the business community who hold Qarase in high regard. Despite acceptance from some Indo-Fijians, many are concerned about Qarase's pro-indigenous policies and his controversial campaign to pardon the jailed perpetrators of the 2000 coup.


One of the most common observations made when Indo-Fijians are compared with Indians on the subcontinent is that they are very relaxed and friendly. There's no doubt that more than a century of living in the islands with laid-back indigenous Fijians who greet others warmly has had an effect. The distance from India and its strict mores has had a profound influence and Indo-Fijians have largely discarded the rigidities of India's caste and social structure. In Fiji, schools, higher-education institutions, the workplace and places of worship do not discriminate according to caste or class differences. As a result, the relative ease with which Indo-Fijians socialise and engage is arguably one of the characteristics that sets them apart from Indians - especially the middle classes in India. For example, in Fiji wedding invitations from economically disadvantaged or village-based relatives are seized upon by their well-to-do relatives as an opportunity to catch-up with family and indulge in feasting and celebration. Such disregard for social codes would be frowned upon in India. Although some traditions such as arranged marriages are still the norm, Hindu wedding practices have generally changed in Fiji. While still distinctly Indian,

weddings in Fiji have largely been standardised and are an amalgam of various traditions. The nuptials are attended by family and friends, and last at least an hour. In some states in India, rituals last just a few minutes, and in other states, they are sometimes witnessed only by a handful of family members.

One of the more significant cultural departures from India has been the emergence of an unique Hindi dialect. Known as 'Fiji-Hindi', it is an amalgam of regional dialects spoken by the indentured labourers from India. Today it is used in all informal family and social settings. In India, it would be regarded as toota-phoota, or broken Hindi. But universal use among Indo-Fijians has contributed to its increasing acceptance as a legitimate dialect. For some useful words and phrases in Fiji-Hindi, see p275.


With some five generations of history in Fiji, the Indo-Fijian community has forged a strong identity in its adopted homeland. This identity is an unique blend of Fijian and Indian cultures. For an Indo-Fijian, being ethnic Indian as opposed to being indigenous Fijian is about a certain type of upbringing and way of life. The outlook and aspirations of Indo-Fijians emphasise the importance of education and hard work to ensure a secure future. Add thriftiness for good measure and you have the core of the Indo-Fijian package.

India remains an important cultural beacon for Indo-Fijians, influencing rituals, culinary traditions, dress and entertainment. Today these influences provide some of the more obvious signs of cultural distinction between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians.

Most Indo-Fijians love homemade rotis (traditional breads) straight from the kitchen. Steaming curries are served with roti and rice, with condiments completing the meal. Many Indo-Fijians have a weakness for mithai (traditional sweets). Out of the home, the curry combo also finds its way to schools, the workplace and the outdoors.

Tradition, pride and identity have also ensured that saris, the colourful Indian dress worn by women, remain popular in Fiji. The Muslim- and Punjabi-influenced salwaar-kameez (flowing pant, top and scarf outfit) is also standard. Most Indo-Fijians are practising Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, and across the country, temples and mosques lend a particularly Indian feel to the landscape. The domes, minarets and red flags atop bamboo poles in backyards also serve as a reminder of the strength of Indo-Fijian adherence to the faiths of India. Hindus make up about 38% of Fiji's population and Muslims 8%.

Entertainment and recreation continue to have a decidedly subcontinental flavour for many Indo-Fijians, with the local cinemas providing a regular dose of Hindi-language Bollywood film and music. Indo-Fijian home-entertainment systems are often tuned to provide Bollywood on tap, as well as an endless supply of Hindi-pop music videos. Apart from the pure escapism value, Bollywood films also provide many with the only connection they have with India and subcontinental Hindi.

On special occasions, such as weddings and festivals, youngerfamily members learn to make m/f/iffl (traditional sweets).

Fiji remains a popular stopover for Bollywood stars and musicians on overseas tours. Check papers for events if you want a slice of Bollywood action.


A small but growing number of Indo-Fijians are now retracing their ancestral roots in India. Sydney-based documentary maker Satish Rai has been making documentaries about his and others' experiences. Documentaries include Milaap: DiscoverYour Indian Roots (2001) and Milaap: A Royal Discovery (2003). Another film is in the pipeline.

In the mid-1970s Indo-Fijians made up 49% of the country's population. It is estimated by some that, by 2022, Indo-Fijians may comprise just 20% of the population.

There are hundreds of small Hindu clubs called 'mandalis' around the country. Once a week they recite the Indian epic of Ramayana and sing hymns as part of devotional rituals.

Most Indo-Fijians will never visit India. Few now dream of going there. Those who do visit are motivated by a desire to explore their cultural heritage and ancestry, while others simply visit out of curiosity; however, few are compelled to take the journey as an affirmation of their identity; it is Fiji they turn to for that.


Most aspects of Indo-Fijian lifestyle and culture have comfortably coexisted with the indigenous Fijian way of life for more than a century. A quick look around reveals that large numbers of Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians live side by side, work together and go to the same schools. But apart from attending some sports, entertainment and special occasions together, the two groups still tend not to engage socially. Their economic, educational, cultural and social priorities, including tabu (that which is forbidden or sacred), differ. These differences have proven rich fodder for political agitators seeking to exploit the insecurities of indigenous Fijians.

For example, the domination of a few Indo-Fijians in the economic sphere, as well as their high visibility in white-collar occupations, has often been used by nationalists to fan the coals of resentment. In reality, many Indo-Fijians remain economically disadvantaged. Yet the threat of'eventual Indian domination' has been a recurring theme in Fiji politics.

Quite often, Indo-Fijian success, flamboyance (new cars, big houses and gold jewellery) and materialism have served as convenient reminders of what makes Indo-Fijians different as well as threatening. The perceived lack of Indo-Fijian respect for Fijian customs also serves to annoy many indigenous Fijians. For example, when people are sitting down at a meeting on the ground or floor, Fijian custom requires that you pass them in a crouching motion. The tendency for Indians to walk upright in such situations is seen as arrogant and disrespectful. One coup leader even referred to the way Indians 'look different and smell different' when justifying his actions to the international media.

The Indo-Fijian 'threat' has in fact often served as a perfect smokescreen for other agendas. Since the 2000 coup, the media has been a forum for speculation about whether the coup was in the economic or political interests of the disenfranchised or whether it only benefited an elite group of indigenous and nonindigenous opportunists. Whether these allegations will reverse entrenched perceptions about Indo-Fijians is yet to be seen. Widespread opposition to Prime Minister Qarase's move to permit the release of jailed 2000 coup leaders indicates that many indigenous Fijians will not blindly follow their nationalist government. Even though the bill is said to be inspired by indigenous concepts of forgiveness, there is recognition that such appeals to indigenous loyalty will serve only to ridicule the law, placate nationalists and divide the races.


Indo-Fijian Vijay Singh is one of the world's most successful golfers and has won many of the world's prestigious events. When he was young, he used to climb over a fence and dart across the Nadi airport runway to practise on the only course in Fiji. After he left the country in search of his dream, he never thought he would return again. His relationship with Fiji remained on ice for decades but thawed in 2005 when he returned to oversee the planning of a new golf course.


Despite the differences between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians, the way the two groups coexist and influence each other is testament to shared experiences for over a century. In many ways Fiji is already witnessing the synergy that has resulted from cooperation between these two communities. Many Indo-Fijians may be leaving the country in search of economic and political stability, yet this has not stalled the momentum of a mutual cultural exploration by Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians.

Increasing numbers from both communities speak each other's language. In Fiji's cane belts on the western side of Viti Levu and around Labasa on Vanua Levu, many indigenous cane farmers who work alongside Indo-Fijians speak Fiji-Hindi fluently, while their families immerse themselves in Bollywood films. Indo-Fijian music and songs have even been recorded and released commercially by indigenous Fijian artists. Elsewhere, Indo-Fijians in rural communities, including former Christian mission settlements, also speak Fijian.

In larger urban centres, fashion and popular culture are also breaking down barriers. Visit Fiji during the Hindu Diwali festival (held in October or November) and you will see many indigenous Fijian women wearing Indian fashion. More generally, indigenous women are now wearing Indian jewellery and using sari cloth for traditional outfits. Nightclubs are playing Bollywood DJ mixes and bars are serving bowls of curry with drinks the way Indo-Fijians do in their homes. Across the country, sport, in particular soccer, plays a role. Team members hold regular curry, beer and kava (a narcotic drink) nights and banter in Hindi or Fijian. Indo-Fijians are now even playing the indigenous Fijian-dominated rugby. When victorious national rugby sides return from overseas, Indian dancers greet them alongside the thousands of Fijian spectators.

Perhaps the most amazing transformation that has taken place is the elevation of Indian food in indigenous Fijian life. In many homes, almost every second meal is a curry. So be prepared: if you accept an invitation to an indigenous Fijian home, you may not be served Islander food.

Intermarriage, however, remains one area few are willing to explore. For many the cultural, religious and social differences remain insurmountable. Among Indo-Fijians, notions of cultural differences and religious purity have placed intermarriage firmly in the too-hard basket. Early colonial policy prohibiting racial intermingling has also been blamed for limiting interaction and understanding between the communities. There is a minuscule, but growing, number of intermarriages taking place; this is testament to the resolve of the few who are risking ostracism and breaking tabu.

Elsewhere, filmmakers, nongovernmental organisations and artists often push the boundaries of cross-cultural experimentation to promote national unity and understanding. Cultural groups such as the Shobna

A growing number of Fijian performers are fusing Indian and indigenous Fijian traditions in their music and choreography. They include popular band Black Rose, musician Karuna Go pa Ian and choreographerShobna Chanel.

Indo Fijian Music

© Lonely Planet Publications

50 INDO-FIJIAN HISTORY & CULTURE •• Cultural Immersion

Chanel Dance Group fuse rhythms and traditions of Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian cultures at national and international events. Femlink-pacific, a community-based organisation produces radio programmes and video documentaries that reflect universal themes in Indian festivals. Indo-Fijian filmmaker James Bhagwan has even scored international Temple etiquette must be prizes for his documentaries promoting freedom and tolerance using followed. Wear modest cross-cultural themes, clothes, remove footwear and abstain from non- CULTURAL IMMERSION

vegetarian meals and The best way to experience Indo-Fijian culture is to share a meal at the alcohol on the day of home of an Indo-Fijian. To increase the chances of being invited, you can yourvisit. always meet sociable Indo-Fijians at some of their favourite celebrations, haunts, shops and cultural venues around urban centres. If you are lucky enough, you may meet someone who could take you to an Indo-Fijian settlement to witness rural life and be treated to real down-to-earth hospitality. That could mean anything from a glass of fresh country-style lemon juice to a village-style curry feast, complete with home-grown vegetables. Just remember to take some sweets with you as a gift for your hosts.

There are many fantastic eateries in cities and towns serving home-style meals. But try to also explore some of the places in smaller towns that cater for Indo-Fijians. They often serve seasonal vegetables such as duruka (Fijian asparagus), katahar (jackfruit) and kerela (bitter melon). Do not forget to ask for pickles and chutneys made from local fruits such as mangoes, kumrakh (star-apple) and tamarind. Remember even some of the locals do not know these places exist. So put some effort into asking around and you're likely to experience a culinary adventure you will never forget.

Annual festivals and events also offer the visitor a chance to experience Indo-Fijian culture. Diwali (Festival of Lights) takes place across the nation in October or November. You can join in the fun by wearing some traditional gear (or a bindi on the forehead) and sharing mithai and candles. Events include temple fairs where thousands of Indo-Fijians gather to watch rituals and enjoy folksy meals. In Suva, the South Indian fire-walking festival, held during July or August, takes place at the Mariamma Temple (Map pi 19; Howell Rd, Samabula). In Vanua Levu, the Ram Leela festival is held at the Mariamman Temple in Vunivau (east of Labasa) around October. If you want to explore Hindu mysticism, try the Naag Mandir (Pathaar) temple north of Labasa, where a shrine is built around a large rock that devotees believe is growing in the shape of a cobra (p207). Other interesting events include the annual South Indian Sangam convention (, which takes place around Easter. During the rest of the year, visitors are welcome at Hindu and Sikh temples.

Fairground activities accompany Fiji's soccer season, which runs from February to October. Club soccer matches are played on weekends and culminate in the interdistrict tournament, held in a different location each year ( On the sidelines there is fierce culinary competition under tin sheds, wherepulau (aromatic fried rice), curry and roti are sold. Be prepared to eat with your fingers and put up with the distorted Bollywood and folk music blaring around you.

If you want to hear and watch authentic Bollywood, there are cinemas in all major towns and cities with regular sessions of Hindi films (without subtitles); newspapers carry screening details. Bollywood music tapes and CDs are usually available in duty-free shops, as well as at music stores such as Procera Music Stores (Map p122; §§ 330 3365) in Suva. In major Indo-Fijian shopping areas, such as Toorak and Cumming Sts in Suva, there is a wide variety of stores selling Indian spices, saris and knick-knacks.

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  • marcho
    Where do indofijians live in fiji?
    1 year ago

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