GUYANESE Hindus in the USA observed the annual festival of Kartik Snaan, or Teerat as known in Guyana. The festival is observed on the full moon right after Diwali which is observed on the darkest moon a month earlier. Teerat was introduced in Guyana and in Suriname, Trinidad, and other Caribbean societies by the indentured immigrants who came between 1838 and 1917. The phrase Teerat comes from “Kartik” and it literally means “to have a bath in the river or the sea.” In Guyana, it was traditionally observed with rituals at a body of water and at home and visit to a temple; they take a dip in the water. Hindus tend to fast and perform special pooja on the morning of the full moon. As a child, I recall people attending rituals performed on banks, coasts of waterways.
The USA observance is almost the same in terms of customs, rituals and practices (where feasible) as in Guyana and or as in Trinidad and Suriname. Kartik or Teerat is an observance that marks the culmination of a series of sacred purificatory rites, all directing humans towards the goal of “moksha” or liberation of the soul. It also happens to be the last major Hindu festival before year-end.
Teerat is celebrated on the last day in the month of Kartik in the Hindu calendar and is normally celebrated with a bath in the ocean or river. The month normally falls in November in the western calendar. In NY, New Jersey, and Florida, many Guyanese Hindus and those of other nationalities (from India and Fiji) visited the shore of the Atlantic Ocean to perform special Ganga puja and made offerings to the Goddess of the environment. Fijian Hindus visited the Pacific Ocean on the California coast.
Ever since Hindu Indian indentured labourers came to the West Indies, Teerat has been observed with puja conducted on any shoreline, particularly the Atlantic Ocean. Guyanese, Surinamese, “Trinis,” and Fijians continue that practice in N.Y, Florida, and California. At the oceanfront, they prayed and chanted special mantras, sang bhajans, and made offerings as part of Kartik celebrations. They burned incense and other paraphernalia. The offerings included rice, perfume, fruits, mohanbhog and clothes. They also offered food. Hindu volunteers helped to clean up the beaches.
In Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad, the Kartik observance is carried out at all sea-fronts. As a youngster growing up in Port Mourant, I remember many people going at the back of the racecourse at the ocean to take a dip and offer prayers. It was a day of fun activities with rubber tunes to float on the water. Students took the day off from school as is also the custom in Trinidad. This year with Teerat being on a Sunday, no need to take the day off from schools. At any rate, because of COVID, schools are closed in NY, NJ, Trinidad, and Guyana (except for some high school forms). I spent several Teerats in Trinidad where it is a massive festival on the beaches. It is a spectacle to behold with tens of thousands of worshippers and food and prasad galore. Devotees offered flowers, fruits, clothing, and coins to the goddess of the water. Following the poojas, flowers and fruits were left on the waterways. Manzanilla Beach was overflowing with celebrants who partook in sporting activities after pooja. Pooja was carried out at points along the sea-front by Hindus. Jhandis were then planted throughout the beach, creating a colourful spectacle. It became a picnic with unlimited food and prasad. Devotees partook in vegetarian dishes and sang bhajans and this was followed by sporting games. The waterways at the Rockaways in past years were littered with fruits, coconuts, and Jhandis leading to complaints.
As in Guyana, puja involves the purification of the ground and the environment and offerings to the Goddess, and culminates with aartee. At the end of the puja, all of the offerings were placed on a piece of cloth and released into water, preferably the ocean. The significance of the ritual is that the devotee is feeding back to the earth, everything that comes from the earth. It is not possible to take a bath in the ocean during the cold, wintry season. So people settle for an alternative of praying at home.
The holy river “Ganges” or the deity “Ganga Mai” is the main deity worshipped at the Teerat festival. It is believed that the Goddess of water, Ganga Mai, came unto the earth on the day and so Hindus seek her blessings by performing special prayers devoted to her and taking a dip in the sea, believing that the Ganges water is mixed with the rest of the bodies of water and as such, by taking a dip at any ocean, their souls become cleansed. Kartik is a time to cleanse oneself and to ensure that something is given back to the goddess of the sea. Pandits say that Hinduism is perhaps the only religion that makes offerings back to nature.
The observance of Kartik is important, especially at a time when the sea seems to be reclaiming land and storms are destroying homes. There is so much flooding because of higher sea levels. In the Teerat puja, the Mother of the Sea is asked to protect people and the environment. This is the common message behind the celebration among Hindus in Guyana, NY and elsewhere.
In Guyana, I recall devotees normally shared the puri, lapsey and mohanbhog with others who came for a bath. But in NY and Florida, not many Hindus make offerings at the shore-front because of the pandemic. Hindus bathe in a mixture of holy Ganges water and made offerings at home. In India, they bathe in the Ganges. In NY, some pour Ganges water in a bucket of water and took a bath and some immersed their feet in the waterways.