The Maha Shivratri festivital, known as the The Great Night of Shiva, is celebrated with great devotion and fervor annually. Pilgrims from all around the island dedicate themselves in this tedious pilgrimage on foot to the sacred lake of Grand Bassin.
History - The Pilgrimage
The history of this pious festival dates back to the 70s when Mauritius was freed from British rule and Indian immigrants chose to settle in the island while keeping their traditions and beliefs. They laid the stepping stone to this pilgrimage which would be passed on to younger generations. From more than half a century now, Mauritians have been engaging themselves to commit to the pilgrimage tradition started by their ancestors.
All around Mauritius preparations to the annual pilgrimage begin weeks earlier. Devotees will start crafting colorful bamboo structures known as kanwars for the Kanwar Yatra (procession). After observing a strict vegetarian diet which normally lasts for one week the Maha Shivaratri pilgrims will leave their homes and villages to proceed to Ganga Talao. Those carrying the kanwars will start their journey by foot; others will travel by cars and buses. The devotees will offer prayers and collect sacred water – Ganga Jal - from the lake to pour on Shiva lingams, a symbolic representation of deity Shiva. Their aim is to fetch the lake water of Grand Bassin considered pure by many believers which would be later on be offered on the sculpturic representation of the Lord Shiva, the Shivlinga.
Ganga Talao – The Sacred Lake
Ganga Talao is pivotal to the festival. Historical records state that pilgrimage to the crater lake which is located deep in the secluded mountainous highlands of Mauritius started in 1898.
A year earlier two Hindu priests, Shri Jhummon Giri Gosagne Napal and Sri Mohanparsad saw in their dreams water from Jahnavi (Ganges River) springing in the pond. Stories about the dreams spread like wild fire 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 Hindu Faith.
In the following month of Phalguna, Pandit Giri Gosagne Napal headed the first group of pilgrims to Grand Bassin - literally translates to the “Big Lake” - , a far cry lake from Triolet. Braving pitch dark nights and mosquito-infested swamps, they trekked for days in the densely forested and muddy uplands to collect water from the pond to offer to Lord Shiva in their home temples. This was the very first time Maha Shivaratri was celebrated in Mauritius.
In those days Grand Bassin was known as Pari Talao – the Lake of Fairies – to the Hindu population. 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 in 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.”
Tradition - Kanwars
Kanwars are the main highlight of this pilgrimage. Normally made of bamboo or polystyrene, kanwars are basically a temporary shrine to shelter the man-made reproduction of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. These statues can measure from a mere 2 feet to 10 feet of height and are usually made of polystyrene or fiber glass. While converging towards the sacred lake, pilgrims are involved in such a festive and vibrating procession of kanwars and religious music that it is just a delight to the soul and even a non-Hindu is compelled to join the celebrations. As the procession reaches its destination, the ambience dramatically changes. Pilgrims rejoice upon finally catching a glimpse of the 108-feet Shiva statue that looks upon all of them.
A unique experience
The religious festivities last a few days. During this time between 250 000 and 400 000 devotees make the pilgrimage to Ganga Talao! An amazing spectacle. You’ll see devotees chanting mantras. Most of them are dressed in white which symbolizes purity. They carry or pull a type of chariot called ‘kanwar’ made of wood, bamboo and lately some plastic. All duly decorated with deities, bells, small mirrors and colourful flowers.
All along the way to Grand Bassin, volunteers dedicated to the service of humanity, serve free foods and drinks to pilgrims. Mauritian snacks such as samossa, gateaux piment, ti puri, applam, among others are just the kind of cuisine you would require after such a long walk.
Imagine thousands of devotees worshipping, chanting, making offerings and pooja to the Gods. It could be leaves from the sacred ‘bilva' or Bael tree or vegetables and fruits to the delight of monkeys.
At night, the place has a magnificent charm. Thousands of twinkling lights reflect on the lake. The clinging of bells, rapid chants of priests and religious songs in the background and the perfumed flair of incense add a mystic aura to the setting allowing pilgrims to lose themselves in the worship of the Almighty.