Chacachacare Mandir is a symbol of the grit and determination and the extraordinary capacity within us.
I was among 75 devotees that joined in devotion with members of the Hanuman Sanjeevini Mandir of Chacachacare on August 14, 2018. This annual pilgrimage headed by Balkaran Ojah Maharaj attracted devotees from across the country. From as far as Williamsville, devotees journeyed to Chaguaramas where they boarded a boat for this pilgrimage to rekindle their spirits and to re-connect with their Hindu ancestors to better understand the sacrifices they have made to preserve this great heritage.
Chacachacare, located 10 41 north latitude and 61 45 west longitude, is the westernmost island among the islands of north-west Trinidad. It is 3.642km or 990 acres in size, 8 miles from Venezuela and shaped like a horse shoe.
The trip to Chacachacare was both enjoyable and challenging. The boat was boarded at 7:30 am at Chaguaramas and was off to Chacachacare. With a clear blue sky, the water of the Gulf of Paria was calm and glistening. The sea was scattered with pirogues, yachts and fishing vessels. Most visible were the vacation mansions on the islands, a sight away from the chaos and dilapidation that prevails in east Port of Spain. In less than forty-five minutes the boat reached Chacachacare. With no jetty for disembarkation, devotees alighted into a pirogue which took them to shore. Several trips were made altogether carrying passengers, their personal belongings, food, parsad and pooja paraphernalia.
Pandit Budharath Yanketesu of Bamboo No 3 performed the pooja. Also present were Pandit Rajindra Maharaj and Pandit Amar Seepersad, spiritual leader of the Amar Jyothi Sabha of Cunupia and President of the T&T Federation of Hindu Organizations.
The pooja began at 10 am in the mandir around a beautifully decorated bedi. The shrotas were Cindy, Balkaran’s wife and his two daughters. As the chanting of mantras were done and the offerings were made, devotees sat silently looking on at the rituals. After the planting of the jhandi, devotees were invited to make their offerings while the Hanuman Chalisa was chanted.
After the final prayer was rendered, parsad and meals were served. On site were a band of dedicated devotees from the San Juan district who ensured that everything was in place and every devotee was comfortable.
The original temple structure has been repaired and expanded to accommodate an altar and an open hall for seating. Balkaran showed me where the ceramic tiles were discoloured and had to be replaced with porcelain. At the back of the mandir is a structure which secures the chairs, tables and other equipment and materials.
The small temple-constructed in 1946- that houses a Hanuman murti has continued to survive while all the other structures that were installed between 1921 and 1926 have disappeared with the shrubs reclaiming the land. Among the buildings constructed on the island were: an administrative building, hospital, bakery, laundry, kitchen, infirmary, cinema, cistern, chapel, chaplain residence and cottages that served as homes for the lepers.
In 1926 the lepers were brought to the island. Doon Pandit served the lepers with the assistance of his wife and his youngest brother, Pandit Karoo Ojah Maharaj. In 1949 Doon Pandit was the recipient of the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his long and dedicated service to the lepers and other social services. His service to the lepers continued until his passing away in 1958.
Singers, musicians, dancers accompanied Doon Pandit on this weekly trip. Magician Dr Abracadabra (Deoraj Seunarine) recalled accompanying Doon Pandit with other devotees from the San Fernando area. He performed his magic for the patients and was well received by all. Also on that trip was the singer Bel Bagai who hugged the singing, not allowing anyone else to sing. Dr Abracadabra also recalled that the sea was rough on the return voyage to Chaguaramas.
Pandit Karoo continued the noble work of his brother Doon Pandit. Karoo never failed to invite the public to join him in his mission of service. His dedication and commitment to his task was recognised by the authorities and in 1964 he was granted MBE. With humility he accepted the award and continued his single minded vision of service to all.
In 1968 Chacachacare was closed after a vaccine was discovered for Hansen disease, the medical name for leprosy. In 1969, on the 7th Anniversary of our Independence, Karoo was presented with the Chaconia Medal (Gold) for his dedicated role as a social worker.
The work pioneered by Doon Pandit and Karoo Ojah Maharaj continues to flourish through the dedicated efforts of Balkaran Ojah Maharaj. Several mandirs have been taking their devotees on pilgrimage to the mandir. On April 16, 2016 the Chinamaya Mission conducted its 94th Yagya in its 108 Nights of Maha Jnana Yagya across the country. The Hanuman Sanjeevini Mandir is also an associate member of the Committee that sponsors the annual Varsha Pratipada Sansaad or Hindu Parliament.
Devotees bathed in the beach for more than two hours. By 4:00 pm it was time to board the boat that was out in the deeper waters. Again the pirogue had to come to shore but this time the sea was rough. The more able bodied adult males assisted devotees with getting on board. On reaching the bigger boat, the challenge was to climb aboard. The rough sea caused the pirogue and the boat to collide against each other. Devotees had to exercise caution or risk being injured. The cooperation of devotees ensured that all were safe and ready for the return voyage.
August 14th, 2018 was my 6th trip to the Chacachacare and each time I encountered the rough waters I promised never to return and yet I kept coming again and again. A pilgrimage to the Hanuman Sanjeevini Mandir in Chacachacare is symbolic of the grit and determination and the extraordinary capacity within us. The pioneering work of Doon Pandit in the 1940s is testimony to the heroic deeds of our ancestors. They have laid the foundation which continues to reinvigorate Sanatan Dharma, making it a way of life for all of humanity to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours and their natural surroundings.