Situated just a few hundred kilometres from the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar, and located off the southeastern coast of Africa, Mauritius is a gem of a destination whose cultural history remains widely unknown.
Named Dina Arobi by the Arabs, the island of Mauritius has changed hands from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the French and the British. Yet, it has an undeniable influence and entangled history with India and how!
On a recent road trip across this paradisical nation, also known as Ile Maurice in French, this writer happened to visit its historical capital city, Port Louis, that’s peppered with charming markets, remnants of French architecture, glittering malls and, surprise of all, colourful Hindu temples in almost every neighbourhood.
The Sockalingum Meenatchee Ammen Temple was the first stop in the quest for sacred spaces on this island. Located in the northern suburbs of Port Louis, inside well-maintained premises with the misty Long Mountain as a backdrop, the Meenatchee Ammen Kovil exudes divinity and vibrancy, and is popularly known as the Kaylasson Temple by local people.
The temple is built on a land of 13 acres bought together by twenty-seven Tamil businessmen in the year 1854. It also encloses idols of Nataraja, Murugan, Amman and other gods and goddesses as well, apart from the main deity of Shiva and Parvati in the form of Sockalingum and Meenakshi Amman.
"This temple is more than 150-years-old, and is inspired by Madurai Meenakshi Amman Kovil", said Somaskanda Kurkukal, a priest at the temple who hails from Kumbakonam in TamilNadu, as he partook 'Vibuthi' with the writer after an 'Archana' to the main deity.
“We also conduct Tamil classes for children in the palli (school) run inside our premises,” he added. A commendable step indeed by the Tamil immigrants in Mauritius for keeping their roots alive in this anglicised world.
During the trip, we also realised that Mauritius has been entirely built by the sweat and blood of the immigrants (and subsequently by their descendants), who had landed here during the ‘Age of Indentured’ between 1830s and early 1920s, a majority of them from India. After going through a lot of tribulations and quarantines, these indentured labourers were imbibed as workers on sugar cane estates.
Today, much of the local population of Mauritius are descendants of the very same indentured labourers with a mix of French, African and Chinese people.
Therefore, from 'Mandirams' built by the Telugu immigrants to the 'Koils' by the Tamilians, and from the 'Mandirs' of the Biharis to the 'Pagodas' of the Chinese, the landscape of this African islet is dotted with vibrant sacred spaces, revered by all and visited by a majority of tourists.
Another crowd-puller, and a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus in Mauritius is the Ganga Talao, commonly known as Grand Bassin. It’s basically a crater lake naturally formed in a now extinct volcano that’s considered sacred owing to an interesting lore.
According to the local legend, Pandit Jhummun Giri of Triolet (a northern town in Mauritius), had a dream in the late 1890s. He was asked by another Pandit in his dream, to find a forgotten sacred lake to the south of the island nation. Soon, he embarked on a quest and reached the present crater lake in the district of Savanne, and prayed to Lord Shiva.
He also supposedly is the first pilgrim to embark on a ‘Kanwar Yatra’ in the year 1897 from Triolet towards the lake in Grand Bassin. Since then, it’s become a tradition for Hindus in Mauritius to take out the Yatra and celebrate Shivratri as a weeklong festival.
Another folklore associates a direct connection between the River Ganges in India to this lake and its name as the Ganga Talao, although it’s far from true.
A more believable version is an auspicious event from the year 1972, when the then Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, brought holy Ganges water from Gomukh in India, and mixed it with the water of the crater lake and renamed it as Ganga Talao.
Over the years, the Hindu community has come together to build shrines with beautiful images of various gods and goddesses on the fringes of the lake. So much so that today, Ganga Talao is considered a pilgrimage site and a national heritage of Mauritius.
Not just Ganga Talao, but nearby are giant statues that are pretty popular and have become synonymous with the island nation. The whole landscape of Grand Bassin is one of piety and sanctity, combining all the elements of nature. Even on the day of our visit to the Ganga Talao, the whole area was shrouded in mist adding a mythical feel to the most sacred place of Mauritius, as if it was a landscape near Mansarovar in Tibet, only that the Himalayas were missing!
Adding to this already beautiful landscape of the Grand Bassin, is a breathtaking larger than life representation of Goddess Durga standing tall at 108 feet, just a few metres away from the sacred lake. The figurine was consecrated in 2017, and is considered the world’s tallest statue of any female deity.
A work of both Indian and Mauritian craftsmanship, the Durga Maa sculpture is made of approximately 400 tonnes of iron and 2000m3 (cubic metre) of concrete. The work on the figurine started in 2011, and it took almost 6 years for the completion of the graven image. She’s a sight to behold along with that of the Mangal Mahadev statue nearby.
Again, the Mangal Mahadev is a spectacle while holding a trident in his hand and looming large at 108 feet height. This impressive figurine of Lord Shiva was consecrated in 2007 and is supposedly a replica of his namesake statue at the Sursagar lake in Vadodara, Gujarat.
This is not all. There is a 108 feet tall statue of Lord Venkateshwara at Hari Hara Devasthanam; a temple dedicated to Draupadi, which is supposedly the very first Hindu temple in Mauritius, and many more such unique sacred spaces all across this island nation that we shall save for another day’s story!