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Pilgrimage: A land devoted to Shiva

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The Maha Shivaratri pilgrimage in Mauritius is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Each year nearly 600,000 devotees make their way to the holy lake.


Maha Shivaratri – a great moment of peace and communion – celebrates Shiva, one of the three supreme gods in the Hindu triumvirate.
Shiva is believed to have saved the world from destruction by swallowing the poison that rose up from the seabed as the Devas (saints) and the Asuras (demons) were searching for the nectar of immortality.


Shikha, 21, smiles ecstatically in spite of her fatigue. This Mauritian woman works in a call centre and has taken two days off to devote herself to Lord Shiva, one of the three supreme gods in the Hindu triumvirate, with Brahma and Vishnu. She has walked for a day and a night from Montagne Longue, a village in the north of Mauritius, to make her way to Grand Bassin, 28 miles to the south. Here is where the Indian River Ganges is said to have resurfaced, in the Ganga Talao, a small lake that Hindu Mauritians have believed to be sacred since the late 19th century. (Hindus make up some 80 % of the island nation’s population). With fifteen of her neighbours and relations, Shikha has been pulling a cart, or “kanwar”, proudly bearing a black obelisk representing Lord Shiva, unlike most of the other kanwars, which display the destroyer of evil with blue skin. “Making this effort, and then praying together, strengthens the spirit of togetherness. It’s a tradition here,” confesses the devotee, lying face down on the tiled floor of the temple overlooking the former crater.




Like Shikha, nearly 600,000 Mauritians – one out of two inhabitants – complete the long pilgrimage for Maha Shivaratri in late February or early March, depending on the new moon. It is one of the biggest religious events in the world, causing huge crowds on the roads winding between the fields of sugarcane. All along the route locals offer drinks, cakes or biscuits. To make room for these large multi-coloured kanwars to pass, the pilgrims lift telephone wires with a bamboo stick. Here you see a white bull, there the goddess Kali with her eight arms, and everywhere, the enigmatic smile of Shiva, armed with his trident. Not all kanwars are on wheels: some are carried by men who take it in turns to sweat under the burning sun of the southern summer. The religious chanting is mixed with the electronic sound of techno music, which the young people much prefer.


The pilgrims pray and pour water over the Shiva Lingam, a sacred stone representing the god. They pay homage to Shiva by fasting, reading sacred texts and giving offerings. They then share a meal of dates, walnuts, sweet potatoes and rice.



Crowds and shivers

This year, Danraj has chosen to “go back to tradition”, meaning less ostentation. This head of the family has pushed aside his soldering iron and workman’s tools on his little concrete veranda to make room for his children, nieces, nephews and cousins. A few hours before leaving, they are all busy covering bamboo sticks with red and white paper, which they then tress into baskets or openwork pyramids. Each person will transport his or her modest kanwar from the village of Saint-Paul, some ten miles from Grand Bassin, to the beat of the traditional drums, or dholaks.


The traditional pilgrimage dates back to 1897, after a pujari from Triolet dreamt that the waters of the lake reflected those of the Ganges. Erected in 2007, the statue of Shiva stands 108 feet high.

This number is one of the many sacred symbols in India. According to ancient astronomy, the distance between the Earth and the Sun is equal to 108 times the Sun’s diameter. Hence the 108 beads in the rosary: the number of steps between the body and the inner sun.



On arriving at the holy lake, the pilgrims, who have just ended two to five weeks of fasting, pray for a long while on its shores. Ramnath, in a black hat and white shorts, accompanies his mother, who is dressed in an elegant blue and gold sari. “I walked for two days, and Mum arrived by car,” the young man confides. Solemnly, they light incense and diyas on banana leaves transformed into frail little boats. Sporting a little ponytail, Suvasagar, an Indian priest who settled in Mauritius seventeen years ago, reminds everyone of the meaning of the offerings: milk, yoghurt, butter, honey and sugar symbolise the five elements of the world: sky, wind, water, fire and earth.




The fervour is peaceful, and the smiling devotees agree to have their photos taken by the few tourists. Girish, a member of the association that manages the temple, is not surprised. The man who felt “shivers” when visiting the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, guarantees the “tolerance” of his flock and this lay preacher says he respects “all the religions of the world”. Everyone brings back some holy water from the lake in a plastic bottle, which is carried home in a kind of sock. They have to return to the village for the ‘’Great Night of Shiva’’, the most important time of Maha Shivaratri. Throughout the night, the devotees go to pray in the temple, around the Shiva Lingam, a small stone obelisk symbolising the god, over which they pour the precious holy water. Ramnath is confident: last year, he confided his secrets in Shiva and “all his wishes were granted”



by Laurent Decloitre
Photographs Patrick Laverdant