Hinduism in Martinique

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The history of Hinduism in Martinique somewhat began with the importation of Indian laborers in the mid-19th century, and, although Hindus now comprise only 0.5% of the population, the religion is still practiced on the island today.

After the abolition of slavery in 1848, plantation owners filled their need for laborers by importing Indians from the subcontinent, starting in 1853. These immigrants brought with them their Hindu religion. Many Hindu temples are still in use in Martinique and, in 1987, a personal description of their secret ceremonies was published by a Hindu participant.

The symbols, gestures and myths of Hinduism were an important inspiration to the French artist Paul Gauguin, who visited Martinique in 1887. Gauguin mixed these with elements from the Caribs and Arawaks, native peoples of the island who had been wiped out by succeeding invaders.

Of special interest is Gauguin's 1896 painting La Femme du Roi (Tahiti) and its origins in the Martinique Eve wooden bas-reliefs of 1887 to be seen in two designs, one where the figure of Eve plucks a golden fruit and the second where the figure reclines holding a fan. The design derives originally from Lucas Cranach's Diana Reclining and Édouard Manet's Olympia but the inspiration is Martinique and the symbolism is largely Hindu, the central figure being the Hindu goddess Mariamman. The theme of this work is said to be religion, sin, luxury, death, capital punishment and colonisation. In terms of art history it is one of the most powerful examples of Gauguin's ability to transmute his Martinique experiences of 1887 to his work in Tahiti a decade later.