The island of Mauritius = 1,500 kms east of the African mainland - is one of the very few nations outside South Asia where Hinduism is the majority religion. Indians began settling on the island in the last century when they were brought as indentured labourers to work on the sugar estates. But although Hindus now make up just over half the one-million or so population. Mauritius isn't at all like India - as Andrew Whitehead, normally based in Delhi, discovered recently:
The sugar village I stopped at near Belle Mere in the east of Mauritius looked, at first glance, like so many I've seen in India. The cane crop was five to six feet high, swaying in the sea breeze. In just a few weeks, the labourers will be starting work before dawn every day to harvest it. Just across the road from the sugar fields, an Indian family - all workers on the estate - were sunning themselves in their backyard. The older women, wearing saris, were sorting rice in preparation for a 'shaadi' - a wedding. They spoke among themselves in Bhojpuri, the north Indian dialect the indentured labourers from Bihar brought with them to Mauritius four or more generations ago.
But first appearances can be deceptive. Looking more closely at the well-built labourers' houses, the workers clearly lived much more comfortably than their counterparts in India. There were no Indian-style bullock carts, no rickshaws, no potholes in the road. And the children of the family were speaking not Bhojpuri, but creole - a language born of the collision of cultures at the time of slavery which is now the mother tongue of most Mauritians whatever their race or creed.
Te sugar workers told me they had no family now in India. They din't know which village in India their forbears came from - it was a long time ago, tey explained, and at that time labourers couldn't read or wwrite. In the more prosperous parts of the island - and sugar now counts for just a small part of ecport earning - the pace if change is still more evident. Mauritius has done well for itself over the past thirty years. Its leaders even speak f an economic miracle which has brought textiles, upmarket turism and offshore finance to the island.The sari is being replaced by fashionable dresses or designer label jeans. And that most populat of games in India, cricket, never caught on here - football is the craze.
But as the links with India fade, the keener many Mauritians of Indian origin have become to cleave to their religion. At the annual festival of Maha Shivrartree, up to a third of a million people - a quarter of the entire population - make their way up to a holy lake in the interior of Mauritius, one of the biggest Hindu pilgrimage spots outside India. It's a way of reaffirming their identity. And that has a political purpose too. Hindus make up just over half the population and if they put aside caste and regional differences and make common cause, they control the country. And that is what they have done. In the three decades since the end of British rule, Mauritius has had only Hindu prime ministers.
Yet the island takes pride not only in its prosperity, but in its political stability and successful mix of different cultures. If Hindus dominate politics, the civil service and the professions, then the tiny European community still controls the commanding heights of the economy; the Muslims - also mainly of Indian origin - and the Chinese run many of the small businesses. And then there's the creoles, the 'general population' as they are called in the curious local lexicon. These are the Mauritians of mixed race, who are in some part descendants of the African slaves who also came to work for the sugar planters and to provide muscle power during the colonial era. A remarkable mix of races, religions and languages for a nation so small - Mauritius Broadcasting puts out programmes in twelve languages to little more than a million potential listeners.
The African creoles in particular feel a little on the margins of power and prosperity. It's more of a gentle grievance than a burning sense of resentment. 'The Hindus take the biggest share of the cake'. one creole leader complained to me. And there's a sense of injustice that the main cultural asset the creoles have given to modern-day Mauritius - its common language, creole - has no official status. You can speak French or English in the National Assembly in Port Louis, but nothing else.
In some ways, Mauritius is still trying to work out its identity - politically its part of Africa, ethnically the Indians predominate, and in economic terms, when you look at the market for Mauritian sugar or textiles, it's really offshore Europe. It's a very small island to face three ways. But by and large, and helped by a booming economy, Mauritius has managed to keep political and ethnic tensions well under control. It's not quite the paradise of peaceful co-existence described in the tourist brochures, but compared to Rwanda or Sri Lanka, it's been a remarkable success.
And now Mauritius is finding a new role - taking advantage of its remote location in the middle of the Indian ocean. It's developed an impressive freeport, with ample warehousing facilities. This tiny island now believes it can become a trans-shipment centre serving all the countries of the Indian Ocean rim, from South Africa to Singapore, and including the country from which so many Mauritians hail - and with which they have so little in common: India.