Crossing the Kala Pani to Britain for Hindu Workers and Elites

Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College
Indian men and women of all classes and communities have been traveling overseas, across the kala pani ("black waters"), for centuries.  But many twice born Hindus regarded people who had made such a transgressive journey as having unavoidably caused excommunicating pollution that required ritual purification before they could be accepted back into their home communities.  Hence, compared to other communities, a disproportionately small number of Hindu workers and elites made this journey and returned to India.

From the 18th century onward, conflicts intensified between those Hindus who traveled overseas and those who refused to do so.  European shipping created intercontinental arenas in which new opportunities became possible for employment, commerce, and education.  In particular, as British colonial rule expanded over India’s many regions, diverse Indians, especially men born into high varna groups, found overseas travel worth the risk.  Simultaneously, the qualification and status that these England-returned claimed were challenged by those Indians who refused to undertake this polluting voyage.  The latter found in the dharma shastra and other Brahmanic texts rules against such crossing of the kala pani as well as prescriptions for removing that pollution.  Yet, an increasing number of these new Anglicized elites refused to submit to such practices and rather asserted their own leadership in Hindu society.

Using primary and secondary sources, this paper will examine how such Brahmanic sanctions against overseas travel affected the lives of Indians, particularly high-born Hindus, as they ventured to Britain from the early colonial period onward.

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