Legacies of the indentured Part 2: Sonar and Kohar: Indian caste-based professions in Trinidad
May 29, 2023

Although the indentured Indians who came to Trinidad were brought to do agricultural labour, they came with multiple skill sets and capabilities, which stemmed from their caste-based professions. Their respective professions constituted part of their identity, socio-economic and cultural biography. Some of the caste-based professions include potters, jewellers, fishermen, boatmen, leatherworkers, weavers and tailors. The following blogs situate both the Kohar (pottery) and Sonar (jewellery) tradition of the Indians. It presents a vista on the historicity of the practices, and on how their features and functions impacted on the lived realities of the immigrants. Through this, we are able to elicit so much about the people involved in the production and consumption of Kohar and Sonar.


Sonar (Jeweller) is a sub caste of the vaishyas. Vaishya is the third Varna (social strata) of the Caste System represented by agriculturalists, traders, money lenders, artists, artisans and those involved in commerce. There were several Indians who were skilled jewellers who came during the indentureship period. They have traditionally been involved in the craft of jewellery for hundreds of years as it was a generational occupation.

Their traditional occupations were temporarily halted during indentureship as they worked on the sugar plantations. After their contracts ended, some reverted to their original caste-based occupations and executed their craft in the manner that their ancestors had traditionally done. This assisted with a sense of stability- emotional, social and financial- following a traumatic plantation life experience. It is imperative to note that this dynamic was also the case with other domains of creative endeavour. There were the Kohars (Potters) Jutha Walas (Shoe Makers), Darzis (Tailors) and the Julahas (Fabric/Basket Weavers).

The Immigrant Agent Report, prepared by the Inspector of Immigrants, would usually provide to the legislative council an annual report that would feature the various occupations of the Indentured Labourers.

In Hinduism, as in many other cultures, body adornment is a practice of immense importance.  Through the nostalgic commissioned post-card images which feature predominantly the female indentured Indian labourers, we get a sense of the radiance of jewels, precious and semi-precious metals that they wore.

A bejewelled Hindu Girl, Trinidad, circa 19th century.
Source: Michael Goldberg Collection, University of the West Indies.

Ancient Vedic literature references the Solah Shringar whereby it elucidates the manner in which a woman should adorn herself. The Solah Shringar or sixteen embellishments comprise the bindi, necklaces, earrings, flowers in the hair, finger rings, bangles, armlets, waistbands, ankle-bells, kajal, toe-rings, henna, perfume, sandal wood paste, the upper garment and lower garment. Whilst the indentured Indians did not regimentally subscribe to this concept in its entirety, aspects of it were practised.

They purchased gold and jewellery coins (mohars) from Y De Lima and other merchants fromwhich they made chains and necklaces (mohar malas), churiya (collection of small bracelets), churi (individual bracelet), beras (thick bracelet), suri-bindi (forehead chain), jumka (earring), angutis (rings) that usually included lapis-lazuli stone or emerald, karnas (anklets) and three classifications of nose rings- nathuni, nakh-basar and nakh-phul. Some of these pieces were created both in gold and silver utilising either 10 or 14 karat gold. The Indians saw the investment in jewellery as a means of preserving their wealth. This ideology was brought from India. Primarily the men were the practitioners of the jewellery craft.

A Sonar, executing his craft. Source: Michael Goldberg Collection, University of the West Indies.

In the ethnographic work by travel writer Lafacdio Hearn, written whilst probing a village in Trinidad and observing the Indentured Labourers, he describes a woman thus:

 “…arms are covered from elbow to wrist with silver bracelets, -some flat and decorated; others course, round, smooth with ends hammered into the form of viper-heads. She has large flowers of gold in her ears, a small gold flower in her very delicate little nose. This nose ornament does not seem absurd; on these dark skins the effect is almost as pleasing as it is bizzare. This jewellery is pure metal; -it is thus the coolies carrying their savings,-melting down silver or gold coin and recasting it into bracelets, ear rings, and nose ornaments”. (Hearn, 54)


Postcard image of “Coolie Types, Trinidad”
Source: Michael Goldberg Collection, University of the West Indies.

Churiya: collection of bracelets
Source: “National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago Facebook Page
Photo/Design: Damian Libert

This collection of bracelets is known as a “Churiya”, individual parts can be detached, and each piece is known as a “Churi”. According to the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago, the churiya above is composed of 23 churis and it measures 8 inches in length and is 2 ¾ inches wide at its broadest end. The piece weighs almost 3 pounds.

Many women who wore the churiya saw it as an article for protection with its robust nature and large surface area. In many instances the churiya was disassembled with the churis being distributed to the daughters-in-law of the owner as it was believed that they would allow for the “generational ownership” of it eventually making it an heirloom of the family. It was believed that when daughters were married and left the home it would be lost from the family, hence the decision to pass to the in-law, this sometimes angered the daughters.


Since its invention in the Neolithic period around 6000 BCE, ceramics have been useful objects that almost everybody could own. Clay vessels or pottery have found their way into many aspects of life, from everyday household use to trade or religious functions, providing evidence of how broad spectrums of people undergo different aspects of life.

The Indo-Trinidadian pottery ‘vogue’ manifested itself as a result of the Indian Indentureship system which in Trinidad operated between 1845 and 1920.

According to oral tradition, in 1898, two brothers who went by the names of Goolcharan and Seecharan arrived in Trinidad as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations. They stayed in barracks at Bamboo Road, now known as Carlsen Field, Chaguanas. It cannot be confirmed how much or often they engaged in pottery making during their indentureship tenure, however, they became involved in the pottery business after their indentureship contracts ended, as a means of income. In the early 1950`s the two brothers split and set up their business in separate areas. Goolcharan moved to Rio Claro whilst Seecharan remained in Chase Village.

The pottery featured in the images below is the work of descendants from the Seecharan lineage. Objects that they produce today are as follows:

  1. Deeyas
  2. Kalsas (ceremonial vessel)
  3. Kotias (deeya house)
  4. Flowerpots
  5. Incense burners
  6. Loban-Dhani (vessel to burn coals)
  7. Vases
  8. Chulhas (fireside)
  9. Goblets
  10. Pots for Cooking
  11. Jugs
  12. Candle holders


All pottery photos were taken by Richard Rampersad, May 2022.



Hearn, Lafcadio . 2001. Two Years in the French West Indies (Lost and Found Series). Interlink Pub Group Inc.

“Solah Shringar: The Science behind It.” Indiatimes.com. September 28, 2016. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/beauty/solah-shringar-the-science-behind-it/articleshow/54520592.cms.

Rampersad, R. (2018). Memories in Mud: Probing the Material Culture of the Pottery Tradition in Central Trinidad. Unpublished MA Thesis, University of the West Indies.

About the Author

Richard Rampersad is a Visual Artist, Educator and Curator based in Trinidad and Tobago. His research interests are in the areas of Material Culture, Visual Culture and the East Indian Experience in the Caribbean. Rampersad holds a BA in Visual Arts and an M.A in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine Campus. 

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