The Maha Shivaratri festival is among the most popular Hindu festivals in Mauritius and provides an occasion for great religious fervour
and mass participation through the annual pilgrimage to the lake of Grand Bassin (‘Ganga Talao’). It is observed in the month of Phaguna (February— March) in honour of Shiva, one of the most celebrated Gods of the
Ganga Talao (The River Ganges recreated in Maurilius)
Among his manifold attributes, Shiva is also known as ‘Gangadhar’, the upholder of the Ganges. Ganga river, or Mother Ganga, is the sacred river of the
Hindus and is believed to be of divine origin. To Hindus the world over, the Ganges is the embodiment of purity and divinity and her water, venerated and stored in pots and bottles in many a Hindu home, is highly
valued for its use in sacrifices and ceremonies. Since the Hindus who came to Mauritius could not go to the Ganges, they brought the Ganges to Mauriti us.
Grand Bassin is a lake situated in a secluded mountain area in the district of Savanne, deep in the heart of Mauritius. It is about 1800 feet above sea
level and is surrounded by natural scenery of breathtaking beauty. In 1897 Shri jhummon Gin Gosagne, a ‘pujari’ (priest) of Terre Rouge saw in a dream the water of the lake of Grand Bassin springing from the
‘Jahnvi’, thus forming part of Ganga. The news of the dream spread rapidly and created quite a stir in the Hindu community. The following year, pilgrims trekked to Grand Bassin to collect its water to offer to Lord
Shiva on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri. The lake was then known as the ‘Pan Talao’, the lake of the water fairies, because people believed that fairies came to bathe in it every night. In 1972 sacred water from
the Ganges was poured into the lake which, from then on came to be called the ‘Ganga Talao’, the lake of the Ganges. The annual pilgrimage to Grand Bassin has become a very important feature in the religious life of
the Hindu community of Mauritius.
The Festival itself is preceded by weeks of preparation and discipline, during at least one week of which no meat and alcohol are consumed. Three days
before the festival proper, devotees start on a pilgrimage to the ‘Ganga Talao’. Men, women and children, all dressed in white, in their thousands, from every nook and corner of the island, travel to the lake on
foot, in a slow and never-ending procession. On their way, a journey of twenty or thirty miles, they carry on their shoulders, sometimes by twos or fours, structures made of bamboo and decorated with paper streamers
and small multi-coloured tinkling bells. Some of these ‘kanwars’ as they are known, are minor artistic masterpieces built mostly like domed temples, rippling with colours and flashing with the reflected lights of
The pilgrims gladly carry these ‘kanwars’ or ‘yokes’ on their necks and shoulders symbolising their loving surrender and obedience to the Divine will. When
they reach the Ganga Talao, and after a short rest, they offer prayers to Lord Shiva and to their favourite deities at the various shrines around the lake. It is estimated that about 250,000 people go on pilgrimage
to Grand Bassin every year. To the visitor who comes by car or coach, the experience may be rather unnerving, what with the slow-moving traffic, the jams, and the thousands of men and women, crowding the stone steps
which reach like roots into the lake. But then the whole scene is an unforgettable sight. The lake itself is like an emerald jewel in a breathtakingly serene woodland setting, vaulted by the sky, flanked on one side
by a ‘Shiva Linga’ in the form of a temple-shaped hillock. One hundred and eight steps, like beads in a ‘japa mala’ (rosary), climb to the top of the hill which is crowned with a life-size marble statue of Hanuman, the monkey-god and peerless devotee of Lord Rama.
When one takes in the whole scene — mysticized by the veils of mist that rise and subside, and by the clouds that come and go, when one looks at the rapt
faces of the thousands of men, women and children who reach out to the Divine, one cannot help feeling that here on the banks of the sacred Ganga Talao, one is vouchsafed a vision of transcendence and liberation. On
such occasions and on the occasion of other Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals, one experiences in Mauritius the sensation of crossing over the threshold of the sacred. We have reached the ‘tirtha’, the ford, the
door through which the divine reaches down to the human, and the human reaches up to the Divine. For some transcendental moments, we have the impression that we are in Mauritius, but outside the world, outside time.
Similarly, like many such hallowed places, Ganga Talao becomes a meeting-place of earth, heaven and the beyond. After prayers, it is time for the pilgrims to start on their long journey back carrying their ‘lotas’
(small pots) of brass or bottles filled with the sacred water from the lake. The sacred water is brought to the temple and poured on the ‘Shiva Linga’.
Origin of the the Maha Shivaratri Festival