Maha Shivaratri Festival

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A majority of the Hindu immigrants to Mauritius came from the North Indian plains of the sacred Ganges river. The river played an important role in their religious life. Upon arriving in Mauritius, the early immigrants felt the absence of the Ganges, especially at the festival of Maha Shivaratri, the festival of Lord Shiva and of pilgrimage to the river. In 1897, Shri Jhummon Giri Gosagne, a priest from the North of the island, had a vision of a sacred lake in the southern jungles. He and a group of followers set out to find the lake, which his vision described as related to the river Ganges.

After several days of walking, they came to the lake of Grand Bassin. Every year since then, pilgrims from all over the island walk to the lake on the festival of Maha Shivaratri.

The lake of Grand Bassin is known to the Hindu communities of Mauritius as Ganga Talao, Lake of the Ganges. This sacred place is now surrounded by temples and visited throughout the year, although it is pretty quiet outside of the festival time.

Maha Shivaratri is the festival to honor the Hindu god Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is one of the most important Hindu gods, and is the source of the sacred river Ganges. Images of Shiva appear all over the island during the festival. In this image, the river is seen flowing from the top of his head.

Pilgrims walk to Ganga Talao from all over the island, a journey which can take several days.

Local businesses and temples set up rest areas along the roads for refreshments and relaxation.

Many local business and community organizations create banners to offer salutations to the pilgrims.

Pilgrims walk to the lake to bring back a jar of holy water, which they take to their local Shiva temple for the concluding prayer services of the festival. The water is transported in large and elaborate structures called kanwars.

Kanwars are often symbolic representations of a community's temple or of a god or goddess.

They are made of plastic, wood, paper, and papier-mâché.

The largest ones are pulled on wheels, but most kanwars are carried by pilgrims, part of their demonstration of devotion and their sacrifice.

The main road to the lake becomes flooded with walking pilgrims, and those that choose to ride in cars or busses.

Once pilgrims arrive at Ganga Talao, they put their kanwar down on the grass and rest, or walk around admiring the creativity of kanwars from other villages, temples or community groups.

Every year 250,000 - 300,000 pilgrims visit the lake over the several days of the festival.

Most pilgrims walk at least part of the way and spend a number of hours in prayers and making offerings at the banks of the lake.

There are also many tents set up for food and sleeping, giving the whole place a sense of a makeshift village.

Pilgrims bring with them the offerings they will need for the rituals of the festival. Most families will wait until they can use one of the many small white tables on the banks of the lake.

Once they gain access to the bank of the lake, each family offers fruit and incense and performs prayers to Lord Shiva and to the sacred Ganges, who is also know as the goddess Ganga.

Each family collects holy water from the lake in a small metal jug, praying over the water and then emptying it back into the lake several times before keeping one jugful.

Pilgrims take this water home with them and will later pour over the Linga or sacred symbolic sculpture of Lord Shiva found at the center of the sanctuary of their local temple.

The festival of Maha Shivaratri is one of the most important Hindu festivals on the island, and is the largest Hindu Pilgrimage outside of India. In 1972, a ceremony bringing water from the river Ganges in India to the lake in Mauritius was conducted, recognizing the site as an important place of pilgrimage within the Hindu religion.

Images © Zach Sisisky/The Pluralism Project

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