A pilgrimage to Mauritius
Raised in a Catholic society, I have been used to worshiping God during a formal 45-minute Mass, which was often quite sad and boring. Perhaps this had something to do with my lack of interest in religion now, be it Christian or Hindu or Buddhist. So when I went to Maha Shivaratri, a Hindu celebration of the deity Shiva, it wasn’t for spiritual fulfillment, but rather for a new experience.
During this festival in Mauritius, the Waters of Grand Bassin sparkle with colorful saris and the air is heavy with incense burning all around the shore. It feels magic and slightly unreal, filling you with a sense of belonging and blessedness at the same time.
Little was known about the beautiful island of Mauritius before the French took it from the Dutch in 1767, planting sugar there and establishing a prosperous colony. After the British captured Mauritius in 1810, their occupation confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, the customs, laws and language all remained French (when I got married there, legal procedures were based on the Napoleonic Code). Slavery was abolished in 1835, and slaves were replaced with indentured servants from India. Those people were from the holy land of Bharat, and they brought Hinduism to Mauritius less than two centuries ago. Since then, Hinduism has been the predominant religion on the island.
Early birds we are not, but we managed to get up at 4 a.m. to reach the Grand Bassin before the hundreds of thousands of other travelers who were heading to the same spot. The main road to the lake quickly became inundated with walking pilgrims, cars and buses, and as the sun rose the giant, glittering statue of Shiva, with water spouting from the top, came into view and loomed majestically.
Men, women and children, mostly dressed in white, walk to the lake from even the most remote corners of the island. Pilgrims travel distances of 30 or 40 kilometers, carrying structures made of bamboo or wooden sticks and decorated with colorful paper, bells and mirrors on their shoulders. Some of these “kanwars,” as they are called, are minor artistic masterpieces, built mostly in the shape of domed temples, made in vibrant colors and flashing with the reflected lights from countless little mirrors. Kanwars are often a symbolic representation of a community’s temple or a deity.
Maha Shivaratri, or the “Great Night of Shiva,” is one of the biggest festivals on the island. This annual Hindu celebration falls on the 14th night of the new moon in the Hindu month of Phalgun, which falls in February or March of the solar calendar. Four to nine days of ceremony and fasting lead up to an all-night vigil for Shiva, one of the deities of the Hindu Trinity. Devotees fast around the clock and perform ritual worship of Shiva Lingam to appease Lord Shiva.
As this festival is officially designated as a public holiday for the northern Indian Hindi-speaking community, every single Mauritian Hindu participates by making a pilgrimage to the Grand Bassin. Devotees observe a strict fast in honor of Shiva. While many go on a diet of fruit and milk, some do not consume a drop of water. They strongly believe that sincere worship of Lord Shiva on the auspicious day of Shivaratri absolves a person of sins and liberates him or her from the cycle of birth and death. Shivaratri is considered especially favorable for women; while married women pray for the well-being of their husbands, unmarried women pray for a husband like Lord Shiva, who is regarded as the ideal mate.
The Grand Bassin is idyllic and calm, and surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery. According to legend, the lake is connected with the holy river Ganges, which is why it is also called “Ganga Talao.” The legend has it that the god Shiva and his wife Parvati were traveling the world on a ship; Shiva wanted to show his wife the most beautiful places on Earth, so they stopped in Mauritius. During the journey, Shiva was carrying the river Ganges on his head to prevent the earth from flooding, but he spilled water from the holy river while landing. Drops of it flowed together in the crater, giving birth to the Grand Bassin.
Along the Grand Bassin are several temples, small shrines and colorful statues all dedicated to Shiva and other gods. When the festival begins, believers offer flowers and fruits, filling the air with the pleasant smell of burning incense.
In the main temples and in front of the statues of the gods Ganesha and Ganga, masses of people gather and wait to offer their sacrifices. Lord Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, is widely venerated throughout the world. Ganesha, with the head of an elephant and often portrayed riding a mouse, is considered the deity of good fortune, new ventures and wisdom.
Three days before the festival begins, devotees start their pilgrimage to the Ganga Talao. Local businesses and temples set up rest areas along the roads for refreshments and relaxation. Many local businesses and community organizations create banners to greet the pilgrims.
Volunteers offer food, fruit and juice to the pilgrims on their way, and even set up stalls for them to rest during the journey. Roads are full of people dressed in white to symbolize purity.
Upon reaching their destination, families wait to use one of the many small stone tables on the banks of the lake to offer goods called dravya to Hindu gods.
On the day of Maha Shivaratri, believers dedicate special prayers to Lord Shiva. On the night of the holiday, they connect with the moon, and subsequently with the god Shiva himself. Believers also take water from the Grand Bassin and pour it over statues to praise the gods. Another important ritual is the watering of the Shiva Lingam, a symbol for Lord Shiva. Believers carry the water home with them and pour it over Shiva Lingam in their own village’s temple. They will also attend a ceremony called Char Pahar ki Pooja, where devotees keep vigil all night long, worshiping Lord Shiva and the Shiva Lingam, without which their prayer would be incomplete. The prayers normally last from 6 p.m. in the evening through 6 a.m. the next day, when the celebrations end.
Tourists are welcome to visit the temples and the Grand Bassin itself, but as a matter of respect, one should be mindful of appropriate behavior and dress. If you can stay unobtrusive and blend into the crowds, you will be rewarded by bearing witness to a lot profound happiness. As whole families pray together, age, gender and family status seem to disappear.