Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius
February 25 2019
February 25 2019
For travellers that enjoy more than sublime tropical shorelines, exceptional weather and exotic, high-end hotels, there’s arguably no better destination than Mauritius. This sparkling gem in the Indian Ocean is a cultural melting pot, with a beautifully unified people that choose to celebrate their differences, cultures and heritages instead of letting these things divide them.
The diverse population of Mauritius today is a direct result of the country’s chequered past and includes people with British and French roots, those with Indian descent (Indo-Mauritians), Creoles and Sino-Mauritians (with Chinese descent). It’s hardly surprising then, that the country is also richly religiously diverse. Around 49% of the population are Hindus, 32% are Christians, 17% are Muslims and some 0.4% are Buddhists (according to this site). This religious diversity is celebrated through an array of festivals, practices and celebrations.
Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most popular, of the religious festivals is the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius—one that is definitely worth witnessing for yourself.
Here’s what you need to know about Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius:
This festival is observed annually
Maha Shivaratri translates into English as the “Great Night of Lord Shiva” and is a hugely important festival in the Hindu faith which is observed every year. This festival doesn’t have a set day, it varies from year to year based on the Hindu calendar, but as a rule, takes place on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day of the eleventh Hindu month of Phalguna (February) or Maagh (March).
This year, it will take place on Monday 4 March 2019. When the sun sets on the day of Maha Shivaratri, the celebrations begin with the festival itself honouring the much-loved deity Lord Shiva.
It lasts a few days
The festivities of Maha Shivaratri actually last a few days and allows thousands (hundreds of thousands) of devotees to make the pilgrimage to the sacred lake (which is an incredible sight to see). Interestingly, the Mauritius Maha Shivaratri festival is the biggest Hindu pilgrimage that takes place outside of India.
During this time, thousands upon thousands of devotees worship, light incense, chant, pray and make offerings to the gods in the form of the leaves from the sacred Bael Tree, or in the form of fruits and vegetables.
Ganga Talao is central to this celebration in Mauritius
Those who observe the festival journey in droves to the incredible lake Ganga Talao (also known as Grand Bassin, “Big Lake”), which is said to be a holy lake. This lake serves as the centre of the festival. According to historical records, pilgrimages to Ganga Talao, which is actually set in an old volcanic crater and situated in a mountainous, lush southwest region of Mauritius, started in 1898, and people have come here during Maha Shivaratri ever since.
Legend has it that this lake was seen in a vision and it is said to be linked to the Ganges in India, which holds profound meaning for the Hindus, many of which are descents of the Indian indentured labourers of Mauritius. The very first pilgrimage lasted for days and saw those who participated braving dark nights, muddy lands, dense forests and mosquito-infested swaps in order to collect water from the sacred lake to offer to Lord Shiva in the devotees’ home temples. This marked the first time that Maha Shivaratri was celebrated in Mauritius.
The lake was originally known to the Hindu population as Pari Talao, the “Lake of Fairies” and was said to be a fairy playground. In 1972, however, water was collected from the Ganges itself and poured into Grand Bassin, to strengthen the lake’s link to the sacred river in India. Since then, Grand Bassin has become known as Ganga Talao or the “Lake of Ganges” and is viewed as a sacred and holy lake.
People from all over Mauritius make the pilgrimage to Ganga Talao during Maha Shivaratri
The preparation for Maha Shivaratri and the annual pilgrimage to the lake begins weeks before the festival. In this time, devotees create colourful structures made out of bamboo and adorned with paper decorations, bells, mirrors and flowers, called Kanwars, for the Kanwar Yatra or procession. These structures symbolise obedience, gratitude and surrender to the divine will. Some people take up to a month to create their Kanwar, and many of them are very impressive, with some of the younger generation competing to see who can make the best structure.
A week before the pilgrimage, devotees are meant to observe a strict vegetarian diet and when it is time they leave their homes and villages from around Mauritius and head to Ganga Talao (the pilgrimage can take three days or more, depending on where devotees live and travel from). Those bearing the Kanwars will make the journey on foot, while others might travel by cars and busses to the sacred site. Most of the pilgrims dress in white (for purity), and they carry their Kanwars on their shoulders or pull them behind them.
The practices observed at Ganga Talao are similar to those on the banks of the Ganges
When devotees arrive at Ganga Talao during Maha Shivaratri, they pray, make offerings at one of the many shrines dotted around the lake and collect sacred water from the lake to pour on their own Shiva lingams, the symbolic representations of Lord Shiva. It is believed that this act of bathing Lord Shiva has the power to purify the soul, and allows devotees to attain salvation. Many of the very devoted pilgrims stay at the lake for overnight prayer rituals and to fast.
These are similar rituals that are observed on the banks of the Ganges in India. During this time, it’s common for devotional songs to be chanted and mantras and incantations to be played via loudspeakers.
Once the festival is over, the Kanwars are immersed in the lake. Those that make the journey back home on foot often take up to a week to complete the trek. What is wonderful is that they are greatly supported by the community during the pilgrimage to and from the sacred lake. Pilgrims are given food and drink, and temple halls and temporary shelters are made available for pilgrims to take breaks and even sleep.
Don’t miss out on this incredible festival and join thousands of people during Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius. This phenomenal experience promises to be unforgettable.