Maha Shivaratri, which translates to the “Great Night of Lord Shiva”, is Mauritius’ most popular Hindu festival. YUVA volunteers serve hundreds of thousands of pilgrims of Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius every year.
According to the Hindu calendar, Maha Shivaratri is observed yearly; on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day of the eleventh Hindu month of Phalguna or Maagh (February – March). Devotees of Lord Shiva converge by thousands with great enthusiasm and reverence to Ganga Talao – the Sacred Lake.
Ganga Talao (Grand Bassin), The Sacred Lake
Ganga Talao is pivotal to the festival. Historical records state that the pilgrimage to the crater lake, located deep in the secluded mountainous highlands of Mauritius, started in 1898. A year earlier, two Hindu priests, Shri Jhummon Giri Gosagne Napal and Shri Mohanparsad saw water from Jahnavi (Ganges River) springing in the pond in their dreams. Stories about the dreams spread like wildfire and stirred the Hindu community. The belief that the lake was connected to the Ganges created a profound linkage to mainland India for the indentured Indian immigrants of the Hindu Faith.
In the following month of Phalguna, Pandit Giri Gosagne Napal headed the first group of pilgrims to Grand Bassin – which translates to the “Big Lake”, a far cry lake from Triolet. Braving pitch nights and mosquito-infested swamps, they trekked for days in the densely forested and muddy uplands to collect water from the pond to offer Lord Shiva in their home temples. This was the very first time Maha Shivaratri was celebrated in Mauritius.
Grand Bassin was known as Pari Talao – the Lake of Fairies – to the Hindu population in those days. It was widely spread folklore that celestial damsels attired in shimmery silk inhabited the place and undulated with rapture to the tune of heavenly music. In 1972 water was collected from the Ganges and poured into the lake to establish a symbolic link with the sacred Indian River. From that time on, Grand Bassin is known as Ganga Talao – the “Lake of Ganges.”
All around Mauritius, preparations for the annual pilgrimage begin weeks earlier. Devotees will start crafting colourful bamboo structures known as kanwars for the Kanwar Yatra (procession). After observing a strict vegetarian diet that usually lasts for one week, the Maha Shivaratri pilgrims will leave their homes and villages to go to Ganga Talao. Those carrying the kanwars will start their journey on foot; others will travel by car and bus.
The devotees will offer prayers and collect sacred water – Ganga Jal – from the lake to pour on Shiva lingams, symbolic of the deity Shiva. To a lesser extent, the whole scene is reminiscent of significant rituals performed on India’s banks of the Holy Ganges. It is a common tradition for the believers to chant devotional songs known as bhajans all the way. Mantras and incantations are diffused through loudspeakers tied on car domes.
The return journey to their hometown may last up to one week for those by foot. Volunteer community support is provided through food and refreshment distribution. Tarpaulin shelters and temple halls are available all around the island for rest and sleep breaks.
Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius
The Char Pahar ki Puja culminates Maha Shivaratri. It is a four-round of prayers, each round lasting for three hours and a one hour break (pahar), offered to Lord Shiva from sunset to sunrise. During each pahar officiating, priests in temples will glorify Lord Shiva and perform the traditional “shiv Abhishek” where the Shiva-Linga is given a solemn bath with milk, honey, rose water, curd, clarified butter and sandalwood paste.
Ganga Jal (the holy water from Ganga Talao) is poured on the linga, along with the offerings of fruits, incense sticks, flowers and “bel patra” (a trifoliate leave which is symbolic of Trikaal or the Hindu Trinity of Devas known as Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh). The devotees will keep vigil while chanting the “Om Namah Shivaye” Maha-mantra, reciting holy verses and chanting devotional songs. It is believed that the ablution of Lord Shiva will purify one’s soul. One can attain salvation by bathing Lord Shiva with the holy water from Ganga Talao.