Personal story of a visit to the Divali Nagar festival site in Chaguanas
By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Published T&T Guardian, October 23, 2014
Rainbow-coloured bubbles streamed right above my head, blown by a playful child with a bubble-pipe, as I wandered through the colourful Divali Nagar site on Monday.
It was my first visit to the Chaguanas festival site since the 1990s, when I had last visited with my mother and little sister. Back then, it was fun, although very muddy—most of the site then was unpaved—and there were neither any permanent food stalls nor any permanently constructed place for exhibits.
The site was like a mix between an open-air temple yard and a flea market; you never knew what you’d find, whether a bargain, a blessing or dubiously made brass icons—and that was all part of the experience. Everything from safety pins to fragrant turmeric soaps to the teachings of guru Swami Prabhupada could be found in the small tent stalls. We enjoyed listening to the music, watching the graceful Indian dancing on stage, and learning about Hindu beliefs.
We also enjoyed buying incense and inexpensive bead necklaces, and seeing the fireworks. I remember one year, at the festival’s end, we danced with the Hare Krishna devotees: their enthusiasm was so infectious, we joined them; and they all seemed totally blissed out.
The last year we visited, it poured with rain. At the festival’s end, we waded through ankle-deep muddy, squelching waters...and became trapped by traffic for well over an hour, just in the carpark; after we left it, there was a second huge, suffocating, stressful jam on the highway. The grueling traffic torture eroded our good feelings; we never returned.
Come a long way
The Nagar has come a long way since those days (although traffic remains a problem; but there are now two car parks, and the whole site is paved). Perhaps the most amazing thing about Divali Nagar’s growth is that it all began so humbly, in a car park, with absolutely no money but just the seed of an idea.
Its success today is the result of tremendous community belief, a healthy spirit of volunteerism among the Hindu community, and sustained, planned efforts by dedicated individuals. “Hans Hanoomansingh conceptualised the whole Divali Nagar idea,” said Bob Ramroop, a devoted member of the National Council of Indian Culture (NCIC), the group which began 50 years ago to promote Indo-Trinidadian culture. Today, the Divali Nagar is one of the group’s big success stories. But no one knew exactly how the Nagar idea would materialise back in 1986.
‘Everything was donated’
“We had no money,” said Ramroop; “We had to raise funds. Everything was donated—by contractors, by developers, by business people, and members themselves.”
They received 15 acres of land in 1991 from the State, and went about clearing the canefields there, incrementally transforming it over the years into a vibrant religious, heritage and cultural tourism site.
As I explored the Nagar on Monday evening, I realised how much the festival site had developed—and it was still fun, with even more stalls, better facilities, more diverse performing acts and several towering murtis (religious statues) outside.
Both carparks were packed, and a mobile police unit at the entrance provided security. You could watch folk theatre under a dome, as well as religious and secular singing, dancing and music on a main stage.
Shiva this year’s theme
The female voice of an Indian singer rose above thrumming dholak drums as I looked up at a statue of blue Lord Shiva perched on top of a tall mountain: Shiva is the Nagar theme this year.
In Hindu belief, Shiva represents that aspect of God that re-absorbs or destroys the cosmos at the end of each cycle. A large, very detailed exhibition on Shiva lay within one of the inner rooms in the “dome”: a permanent structure with space for displays and folk theatre.
The Shiva exhibition was extensive. The 80 pieces were all created by Baba Mourya, a friendly, charismatic poet, orator and painter from India with a flowing salt-and-pepper beard and an infectious grin. Baba Mourya has been coming to Trinidad’s Divali Nagar for the past 15 years, interpreting all the Divali themes in detailed wall posters, art and infographics: “I do research from different temples, books, films, and Web sites, then I create a picture. It took four months of research for this year’s presentation. But I have the ideas in my mind from 20, 30 years ago,” he told me.
Brisk trade in clothes
Back outside, I cruised more stalls. I saw the biggest deya ever at the Hindu Student’s Council booth, and a huge, funky orange Hanuman murti.
In a large air-conditioned tent, crowds of people shopped for Indian clothes: bright saris, shalwar kameezes, sherwanis and other garments were decorated in sparkly silver, gold and muticoloured embroidery. Vendors from India did a brisk trade.
From mammoths to honey
Other stalls offered rope hammocks, nested aluminum lunchbox kits, wooden rolling pins, leather sandals.
The variety of goods was in itself entertaining. There were loads of fireworks in colourful boxes of all shapes and sizes; beautiful orchids; stuffed woolly mammoth toys; Spiderman toys on springs; PS3 games; CDs of old Indian songs and Bollywood hits; car jacks; saffron soaps; roasted geera; teas; spicy golden and red curry powders; neem herbal face masks; airbrushing services; and tons of shiny costume jewelry.
Itinerant salesmen flung small, whirling pinwheel-like objects high in the air: they flashed with lights. One man sold nodding puppy toys; a man called Steve offered home deliveries of “cold pressed extra extra virgin coconut oil” infused with rosemary, as well as natural honey.
If you were of a more spiritual bent, there were stalls offering prayer beads, pooja materials, books on meditation and Hindu philosophy, and richly coloured glossy posters of Hindu deities.
Corporate kiosks have increased since the ’90s. This year they included the National Training Agency (offering Caribbean Vocational Qualifications), the Land Settlement Agency (which regularises squatters), National Flour Mills, Bmobile phone services, and First Citizens Bank.
People constantly milled around. An old granddad held his grandson on his shoulders, and many fathers cradled little babies in their arms, giving their wives a break.
Families wandered amiably in the alleys between the stalls, some pushing along baby strollers, others settling down to watch a show. Stately ladies in long saris, women in miniskirts, teens in jeans, boys brandishing Star Wars light sabres, businessmen and tourists were all among the diverse crowd.
A relaxed, open, family feeling was evident in this alcohol-free, meat-free fair: a form of successful cultural tourism driven by Hindu values.
Many visitors are local Indo-TT citizens who never miss a Nagar: it’s an important cultural and community magnet.
Snatches of Indian music undulated through the aisles most of the time, adding to the unique Nagar atmosphere.
At different times you could hear recorded Indian pop stars, quiet flute music, earnest religious bhajans, bouncy Bollywood songs, and even some high-energy tassa drumming.
You could get a leisurely henna design painted on your hands from several mehendi artisans. Or join lines for giveaways by the radio station booths. Or snack on Indian food such as “the original Kamla’s Indian delicacies from Debe,” hot doubles, samosas, fried baiganee and pholourie. Smells of sizzling oils and savoury chutneys filled the air in the food stalls at the back.
Indian dancing and song
Time for a rest. I headed to seating near the main stage, where Odissi dancer Soumya Bose entertained us with his disciplined, graceful classical moves, looking very dramatic with kohl-lined eyes. Next up was the smooth voice of famous local singer Indar Kanhai of the Trushul Indian Orchestra.
As I headed home, I noticed a young couple, both maybe 18- to 20-year-olds, out on a romantic date, walking ahead of me on the road. They were dressed to the nines: he in a white long kaftan, she in a two-piece colourful sari outfit and incredibly tall, teetering high heels. Both were relaxed and enthusiastic from their time at the Nagar: time well spent.
This festival village of lights is certainly worth the visit, whether you’re interested in Indian culture, community celebration, Hindu religious beliefs or are simply someone who loves a good folk fair.
Now if only they could fix the traffic!