In 1887 James Henry Collens noted with amazement about his observances among indentured Indian labourers and the depth of their faith, particularly their knowledge of the Hindi epic, the Ramayan:
"The philosophy of our coolies in this colony is substantially that which their forefathers adopted some 2,500 years ago in the philosophic age; their theology, or rather mythology, is that of the Puranas of much more modern date. In the preface of the Ramayan it is stated that he who constantly hears and sings this poem will obtain the highest bliss hereafter, and become as one of the gods.
Hence the wily Babagee who reads to his ignorant countrymen accounts from the Ramayan, or "Book of the Exploits of Earn", expects to get, and is tolerably sure of receiving, a large offertory for his pains. It is, nevertheless, astonishing how familiar the Trinidadian coolies are with them; even amongst the humble labourers who till our fields there is a considerable knowledge of them, and you may often in the evening, work being done, see and hear a group of coolies crouching down in a semicircle, chanting whole stanzas of the epic poems, Ramayan, etc."
It would seem all the more impressive when one considers the trials of coming to an alien land and remaining largely un-integrated into a British West Indian colonial environment. Preservation of identity subliminally occurred and though at times there were setbacks, from early in the indentureship experience there were toeholds.
It was almost impossible on the estates to have built religious edifices but this was to change. Incentives offered up to the 1880s to encourage Indians to settle in the colony saw entire communities emerge both near the towns and in the wide open countryside.
Early panchayats and other assemblies often took place in the open air under trees but with time, mud-walled mandirs and tiny masjids began to spring from the ground. A decade before Collens, the famous traveller and writer, Lafcadio Hearn visited Trinidad and was taken on a drive through the old Peru Estate, even then already called Coolie Town and now known as St James. Hearn visited a humble mandir and wrote:
"The carriage halts before a shed built against a wall–a simple roof of palm thatch supported upon jointed posts of bamboo. It is a little coolie temple. A few weary Indian labourers slumber in its shadow; pretty naked children, with silver rings round their ankles, are playing there with a white dog. Painted over the wall surface, in red, yellow, brown, blue, and green designs upon a white ground, are extraordinary figures of gods and goddesses. They have several pairs of arms, brandishing mysterious things–they seem to dance, gesticulate, threaten; but they are all very naive–remind one of the first efforts of a child with the first box of paints."
Hearn could have very well been describing the Moose Bhagat Mandir in Tableland near Princes Town, had it existed in his time. This historic sacred edifice is like many other mandirs of the 19th and early 20th centuries in that it is of very humble proportions and is decorated by murals which might seem primitive to jaded eyes, but are preserved lovingly, becoming at once folk and religious art at the same time. The mandir was established in 1904.
Moose Bhagat, a pundit of Tableland and a small landowner, removed some water-rounded stones from a stream near his home and in a vision of Lord Shiva was inspired to construct a permanent home for the sacred stones. The vision predates the mandir by four years and the latter structure was erected under the supervision of another ex-indentured labourer, Durga Dass.
There are two shrines on the spot, one dedicated to Lord Shiva and a slightly later building dedicated to Lord Rama. Inside are original murals painted around the time of construction.
These have been modified with time but retain the same simplicity of the people who created them. One must recall that of the tens of thousands of immigrants who came and remained, very few were artists and the majority were agrarian peoples, so that in executing their religious images, their faith and devotion were the driving factors rather than what Eurocentrics would term "artistic influence."
Bhagat's son-in-law, Jagdeo Sadhu became the pundit and it is his line of descendants who have preserved the mandir and its integrity to this very day.
The roof of the Rama shrine has been changed from the original but much remains intact including the cool open eaves where people gather to hear the epics which are still preserved in Sanskrit.