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Grand Bassin, the sacred lake

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Ganga Talao is a majestic place of prayer and silence. By what miracle did Grand Bassin Lake become one of the world’s most important Hindu sites?

It’s not a very big lake, just a small crater of an extinct volcano, an inland stretch of water, 500 metres above the sea, somewhere in the deep south of Mauritius, between Mahébourg and Morne Brabant. Surrounded by forests, it’s a lonely place, slightly mysterious and often shrouded in mist, which earned it the nickname of Pari Talao, the “fairy lake”. In the early 20th century its peace was shattered, and it became one of the most visited places in the island: the holy site of the Hindu cult in Mauritius.

 

From legend...


 

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva is said to have shaken his hair, where upon a drop of water fell into the crater of a volcano and created the sacred lake. Another legend has it that in 1897, a Hindu priest, or pandit, from the Mauritian village of Triolet dreamt that a lake hidden in the forest appeared like a resurgence of the Ganges, the holy river of the Hindus, where their ashes must be scattered if they want to attain nirvana. The pandit set off to look for this lake, discovered the one at Grand Bassin, found that it closely resembled the one in his vision and the news spread throughout the island. Pilgrims began to flock there, to such an extent that, as the decades went by, the lake at Grand Bassin came to be known as “Ganga Talao”, the “Ganges Lake”.

 

... To contemporary tale


An initial temple to Lord Shiva was built on its shores, then another, and yet another. Today there are half a dozen, dedicated to Shiva, but also to other divinities, like the monkey god Hanuman, whose temple, around which a colony of monkeys has settled, now overlooks the whole site from its promontory. In 1972, during an official consecration ceremony held by the Indian and Mauritian governments, a grand priest from India ritually poured water from the Ganges into the lake. Since then, Grand Bassin has played an increasingly important role in Hinduism, which is today the most common religion in the country. Every year Mauritius’s biggest Hindu festival takes place, the “Maha?Shivaratri”. For four days, tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make their way to “Ganga Talao”, by car or bus, but also on foot, often dressed in white, carrying their kanwar, a miniature temple made of decorated bamboo. Each person leaves with a bottle of holy water from the lake. Masses of offerings are placed on little floating rafts and on the shores of the lake, dominated by the two giant statues of Shiva and his wife Durga.


And a touch of history



 

The rise of Grand Bassin to one of the most important places in the Hindu religion is intimately linked to the history of Mauritius. After the abolition of slavery by the British in 1830, the island’s sugarcane planters had boats filled to bursting bring farmworkers from India to replace the former slaves. These immigrants (not all of whom had volunteered to come) were known as indentured workers, and lived in very rudimentary conditions.

 

 

The plantation owners had almost unlimited power over them. Among other sufferings, these exiled “labourers” were cut off from their roots and their culture, and many, for whom the sanctuaries in the fields and the temples in the villages were not enough, sought out places that reminded them of their homeland. The lake at Grand Bassin was one such, and became a symbol of identity. Not only did it embody a renewed link with India, but also, being miraculously fed by the underground waters of the Ganges, enabled the ashes of dead Mauritians to return to the land of their ancestors.


By Antoine de Gaudemar
Watercolours Laval Ng