Today, is another national holiday in Mauritius. It’s Maha Shivaratri and this morning I went to one of the temples in the north to check out the festivities. This latest outing, however, had me returning home with a wet bum and smelling of incense.
It seems that I had selected a spot, that I would later come to understand, was designated as the official garbage section outside the temple. I had been squattng and hovering over a small pool of spent milk and murky water (the mental imagery of this does not fit the festive mood of the place) and did not realize it until it was too late.
The temple was bustling with people when I arrived and I decided to park it in an area over to the side not far from the main entrance. The spot looked ideal because no one was really standing or walking in that particular area and as I got closer, the musky smell of incense became quite strong.
It was only when a man came by and said, “Hey mam, you are sitting in garbage. Maybe you’d like to move to the other side?” Ah-ha. Area with no people equals sectioned off garbage area. Got it and now that you mention it, why yes, my backside does feel a tad moist.
I had inappropriately selected an area that was being used to collect the end of incense sticks that were about to be extinguished (hence the intense essence au de incense), wilted flowers and excess milk and water that had been mopped up from the small shrine outside.
All right then. Moving right along while providing what was, I’m sure, quite the unusual sight to anyone viewing me from behind. Nice. Not only did I stick out with my big old camera, but now I had a large, wet circle on my bum. REALLY nice.
The colorful Tamil temple that I had gone to a few weeks ago to check out Thaipoosam Cavadee was quiet, today. It was at the plain white and red temple closer to the center of town where all the action was taking place. The festivities for Maha Shivaratri actually began on Monday.
Monday night the temple was decorated with tons of lights and small, red and white pieces of fabric were hung in vertical strips to create garlands. These were draped all around the temple and across the main road.
Maha Shivaratri is to honor the god Shiva and there is a pilgrimage that takes place to the Grand Bassin in Mauritius. The Grand Bassin is considered to contain sacred water just like the Ganges River in India.
When I first arrived in Mauritius, I was told that this lake was created when Lord Shiva, while travelling around the world with water from the Ganges on his head, tipped his head to the side and some of the water fell onto the island of Mauritius when then created the Grand Bassin.
All week-long I saw the pilgrims in groups walking to the Grand Bassin while carrying kanwars. The kanwars are kind of like what we would call parade floats back in the States and they vary in size and shape, but all of them are quite ornate with colorful decorations.
Locally, there is usually some discussion about how the larger kanwars and groups of pilgrims cause problems by blocking traffic, but as soon as the holiday is over the topic usually fades to black until the following year when it become the topic du jour once again.
I have heard that there are over 100,000 people who take part in the pilgrimage to the Grand Bassin each year including people that come over from India to participate. At the end of the week, there are prayers, offerings and devotions at the temple and this is what I observed, today, on Maha Shivaratri.
Some people may fast during Maha Shivaratri and there are many observed rituals. I did my usual quick reference reading before venturing out, but nothing I read really described the events that I saw. So if anyone has any information to pass on, please do so.
POST UPDATE (Feb. 13th, 2010): The submitted comment (see comments for this post) by a reader (Merci, Lila!) has shed some light.
There was a small altar or shrine located just in front of the main temple doorway. Inside this small open-walled structure there was a statue of a horse cow (also known as “gaow maata” which means “mother cow”) lying down. He She was covered by yellow cape which was tied under his her chin and bundled up towards the rear (see the photos and video in my Flickr photostream).
People would come to this horse cow and stand in front of it. At first, they would hold what looked to be like a clay oil lamp which had a lit flame inside of it. They would circle the lamp in front of the horse cow a couple of times.
After this, they would place leaves, flowers or fruit on top of the horse’s cow’s head or in front of the horse cow. A tall metal vessel with either what appeared to be milk or water was then poured over the head of the horse cow. Sticks of incense were also circled by people near the horse cow.
What I found to be very interesting was that only one person per family or group would do the rituals. The others in attendance would touch or grab onto the arm of the person who was circling the lamp or pouring the milk/water on the horse cow (see photos). It was as if a family connection or bond was being formed and represented during the offering.
I saw some people touch their right hand to the right side of their head as if sweeping back their hair in front of the horse. I then saw some children touch that person’s arm and use both hands to sweep the sides of their hair.
After completing the ritual offerings, people would go inside the temple. The kanwars carried by the pilgrims to the Grand Bassin were on display outside the temple and people would place lit incense on the kanwars.
Music was playing from speakers outside the temple and I could clearly hear the word Shiva being sung repeatedly. A bell also rang out from time to time.
Again, another morning spent witnessing something that I knew nothing about; and yet again, new knowledge gained.