At the tender age of 14, he performed his first Puja for a neighbor. Today, he is the most sought after Hindu priest on the remote island of Leguan.
The Leguan Island is one of over 300 islands found in the Essequibo River with a population of approximately 3,000 residents – the majority of whom are Hindus.
Almost three decades after performing his first Puja, Sunil Persaud Sharma still takes the lead in performing the majority of the weddings and religious functions on the island, as well as teaching every aspect of the Hindu religion to youths.
Though the unique opportunity of his debut was sparked by a sad reason, the Pandit scheduled to complete the ritual passed away the week prior, it was the start of a life-long career for the now 41-year-old.
“I was a little shy,” Sharma said.
“I bent my head throughout the Puja… I didn’t look up into the audience at all, as I did what I had to do. Those days, I didn’t have the teachings memorized as yet, so I would bend my head in my book reading all the time,” the 41-year-old Pandit recalled as he tried not to laugh at his younger self.
He added that, at the time, he knew what had to be done but wanted to be trained some more before making his debut. Even so, he thrilled those at the sermon with his knowledge and efficiency.
The Hindus on the island, Pandit Sharma said, are more in tuned with their culture and also upkeep the traditions down to the very fine details. For instance, he explained that in other places, the Hindu rituals tend to be shortened.
“When we perform a Puja, we do it in the full prescribed way, as it ought to be.”
According to the Priest, he conducts 95% of the funerals and Hindu weddings on the island and has done 80% of the Jhandis and other rituals. Additionally, he visits the United States of America annually to perform the religious functions of persons who previously resided on the island but are now overseas.
Born to a Brahmin family, Sunil knew what his destiny was at a very young age. Brahmin families are brought up as priests, teachers and protectors of sacred learning across generations. In India, Brahmins are said to be the highest ranking of the four social classes.
“I was born and grew up within a Pandit family. My grandfather, my mamu (mother’s brother) – all are Pandits… It was the burning desire of my grandmother for me to become a Pandit, to follow in the family tradition.”
Proud of his culture, he embraced his calling with full force.
At first, the young man began practicing the Indian language, Hindi, taught at the Mandir. He also took part in singing and playing the harmonium and dholak.
“I used to go to functions with my grandfather and sat with him, assisting him in Pujas,” Sunil recounted.
Sunil’s grandfather, Jwala Persaud Sharma, came from India already trained as a Priest and eventually settled in Leguan.
Jwala constructed the first Rama Krishna Mandir at Blenheim, Leguan – a temple which is now run by Sunil and hosts a 52-foot murti (statue) of Lord Hanuman which was unveiled in 2017.
Sunil managed to balance his religious responsibilities with assisting his parents and four siblings with rice farming and milling – a prospering family business at the time.
Even with added responsibilities, Sunil continued his family tradition. He also began teaching other youths on the island.
“I teach dholak drumming, harmonium playing, Hindi and Pandit classes,” he informed.
He believes that it is important for young people to be taught their culture and to continue traditions passed down from generations.
“We have a lot of children in the Mandir and it is very wonderful to watch them sit and sing the Bhajans and play all the instruments. In the event one of our players is not available, one of them can even take up the position,” the Pandit said.
Pandit Sharma also serves the community as an elected Councillor on the Neghborhood Democratic Council for the village of Endeavour on the eastern end of the island – a position which he took up to be able to do more for the residents in Leguan.